It is important to know how to design documents to meet baseline needs of students who are are differently-abled. This section provides an introductory to intermediate overview of basic accessibility features for readers who are blind or have low vision. There are many types of disabilities. What helps one person might cause problems for another; one size does not fit all.
Learners should be able to:
- Make the case for why accessibility matters.
- Describe and implement basic accessibility measures for documents.
- Gain experience using one or more accessibility checkers.
- Identify additional resources to progress in your understanding of accessibility issues and solutions.
- Read the entire chapter and briefly review the types of resources and tools provided under “Resources and Additional Reading”.
- Read the 15-minute guide for creating accessible documents from the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials.
- View the creating accessible documents video playlist (approximately 20 minutes) from the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials.
- Choose a file type or technical platform which would likely be used by a PreK12 collaborator, such as MSWord, LibreOffice, or GoogleDocs. Insert at least one content item for each category in the list below into your document. (Math is optional if you are not in a technical field.)
- Apply a first-try accessibility solution to each of the items.
- Evaluate the accessibility of your work using an accessibility checker.
- Provide your first-try document, a description of where your efforts were successful and where they need improvement, and a final “as accessible as you can reasonably make it” document.
Why Accessibility Matters
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual”. Varying abilities and disabilities may be congenital, progressive, temporary, or onset at any point in life. They exhibit themselves along the range of all types of sensory experiences and functions. Disabilities present in three ways: hidden, visible, and emergent. While some disabilities are observable, many are not visible or obvious.
The diversity in visible, hidden, and emergent abilities necessitates knowledge, creativity, and skill on the part of learning resource creators. As content-creators our goal should be to proactively provide useful access in multiple ways with the recognition that one size truly does not fit all. In many cases, solutions for accessibility are as unique as the people who utilize them; what is accessible for one person might introduce barriers for another person. However, it is possible to meet a wide range of accessibility needs.
Universal Design is the process of creating products (devices, environments, systems, and processes) that are usable by people with the widest possible range of abilities, operating within the widest possible range of situations (environments, conditions, and circumstances). Universal Design emerged from the slightly earlier concept of being barrier-free, the broader accessibility movement, and adaptive technology and assistive technology. It also seeks to blend aesthetics into these core considerations.
University Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of principles for curriculum development that gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn and provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone. Rather than a single, one-size-fits-all solution, UDL offers a flexible approach that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.. Because we are working with creation of electronic documents, our focus in this section is primarily on accessibility for readers with low vision or who are blind.
Readers who are blind or have low vision often use software programs with a speech synthesizer or braille display to read text displayed on a website or in an electronic document. The reader uses key commends to navigate or perform more specialized functions within the structure of a page or document. Further introductory information on screen readers is available from the American Foundation for the Blind. The following videos demonstrate use of screen readers by readers who are blind or low vision.
Trace Dissemination. Introduction to Screen Readers (for documents and websites) [Video 7:05].
TheDOITCenter. Using a Screen Reader (for websites) [Video 7:45].
Baseline Accessibility Solutions for Readers With Low Vision or who are Blind
Meeting some common accessibility needs is possible. The following are several relatively straightforward things any document creator can do to proactively improve their documents for a diversity of visual abilities.
- Organize your document and use properly nested headers: Instead of calling out different sections of a document with bold, italics, or changes in capitalization, use Header1, Header2 etc. features commonly found in authoring software and nest them correctly. This makes document structures more easily navigable, and requires you as a document creator to deliver a well-organized document. Using and correctly nesting headers especially benefits readers who rely on screen readers, and a well-organized document benefits everyone.
- Be consistent and predictable with placement of figure titles, table headers, captions, and other repeating elements. For example, knowing that a figure title will consistently be displayed before a figure makes it easier to navigate a document.
- Describe visual elements using alternate text (alt-text) or in-context descriptions: Figures, diagrams, drawings, and photos can add a great deal of value to a document but are of limited value to people with visual impairments. Describing these elements in the surrounding text or in alt-text can provide the information intended to be conveyed by the image in a way that is accessible readers who otherwise could not visually process the image. Alternative text is a specialized description attached to the computer code of the image and read by screen readers.
- Use transcripts or closed-captioning for audio-only materials: Audio materials are particularly problematic for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Audio materials are also problematic for listeners who are accessing materials not in their native language, dialect, or regional accent. Thus, transcripts aid a broader audience than those who are deaf or experience hearing loss.
- Color. There is a lot to say about color. First, color is not the only way to convey information. Use something other than or in addition to color, such dashed or dotted lines or patterns to convey information.  Second, the contrast between text and background color is also important. In general, smaller fonts and text/background combinations with less contrast are less readable. WebAIM’s color contrast checker is a helpful tool for measuring to what degree the color and size of text on particular color of background is accessible. And third, various technologies can be used to transform the reading experience of a document to make it more effective. For example, some software changes the darkness or color of text from the beginning to the end of a word, making it reading faster for readers with dyslexia. Other software provides options for inverting colors, controlling contrast, and light and dark modes. While end-user technologies are not something that a document creator has control over, knowing what functionality is important can better inform document creation practices.
- Links. Let the reader know what to expect when clicking on a hyperlink. There are several parts to this: First, link to meaningful, descriptive text rather than hyperlinking the phrase “click here.” If an external file rather than a website will be opened or if a new browser tab will open, clearly indicate that by adding [PDF], [DOCX], or [New Tab] as part of the hyperlinked text. Avoid displaying the entire URL — as a screen reader can and will read this. While URLs can be useful in the case of a print version, if you are working in an HTML environment you can display them and use an ARIA label  so that a screen reader what to say instead of reading the URL.
- Tables. Because screen readers read tables horizontally — cell by cell and row by row — tables need row or column headers to provide context for each cell’s data. Tables should always have a table title or caption, and a complete set of row or column headers. Cells should have adequate padding, and merged or split cells should be avoided. Further instructions exist for complex tables which include those with merged/split cells or with more than one row or column of headers. Methods for accessibility of tables will vary depending on the software in which you are creating your document. See the resource list below for more details.
- Mathematical formulas. The facility of a person with sight disabilities (who is blind or has low-vision) to access mathematical equations depends mainly on two factors: the type of software or braille reader the person finds effective for use in reading formulas, and the machine-readability of the document. Beyond the web, equations generally appear in documents as: 1) text which is acceptable for simple equations (e.g.: a+b=c), or 2) as an image with alternative text. Both of these are accessible for most screen readers, though there is some variation regarding how alt-text is stored within an image. Because mathematical formulas can be difficult to typeset, it can be tempting to insert pictures of mathematical equations. If alt-text is not included, pictures of equations are not at all helpful to readers who are blind or have low vision. (Creation of spoken alt-text for math equations is also possible.) We suggest that document creators working with math should typeset math using the approach best for the document type they plan to provide to readers. Various tutorials exist online. A search for “how to put math equations in _____” [e.g. Moodle, Canvas, D2L, MSWord, PPT, etc.] should reveal which type of editor, language or synatax is supported by that system. There are three main paths, some of which are convertible, some with great effort.
- MathType is formula editor and equation writer supported by OpenOffice, MSOffice (for PC and Mac) and web applications such as Gmail and Google Docs. MathType equations in MSWord can be converted to and from LaTeX; math markup languages TeX, LaTeX, and MathML can be entered directly into MathType.
- MathML is an XML markup language designed to display both mathematical structure and meaning. Because MathML with MathJax renders or displays in many browsers and systems, it is often considered the best choice for accessibility of math on the web. ASCIIMath and ASCIIMathML are also occasionally used for math on the web.
- LaTeX is a non-WYSIWYG document preparation system that is commonly used for medium to long technical publications of nearly any type or format. It is built on top of TeX macros which enable application of custom styles. It is an a popular typesetting in academic authoring and publishing. LaTeX most commonly exports to PDF. However, making accessible PDF documents from a LaTeX-generated file requires use of a command line interface and has a steep learning curve.. LaTeX can also be converted to HTML and MathML, which may make it more possible for screen readers to access on the web .
Various tools exist for remediating PDFs to make math accessible, but it is preferable (for the purpose of not having to re-remediate if making changes and generating a new file) to embed build accessibility into the originating source file (.docx, GoogleDocs, etc.) than to add a layer of remediation on top of a fixed PDF file.
Resources and Additional Reading
Anderson, Talea. (2021). “Learning More: Tutorial and Resources” in Accessibility Case Studies for Scholarly Communication Librarians and Practitioners.
Coolidge, Amanda, Doner, Sue, Robertson, Tat, and Gray, Josie. (2019) BCCampus open education accessibility toolkit, 2nd edition. [Some content is applicable for a primarily HTML environment.]
Elder, Abby (2019). “Accessibility and Usability” in The OER Starter Kit.
Organ, Nancy. (2021) An incomplete guide to accessible data visualization.
Color and color contrast
Virginia Tech (2021). Why checking color contrast is important
WebAIM Color Contrast checker. Check any color combinations for contrast level
Color contrast checker (Canvas). Check contrast of colors used in Canvas
Document Accessibility by Format
For audio/video (original or linked) YouTube automatically generates a time-stamped transcript. At the time of publication this feature was not available from Vimeo.
A helpful acronym for remembering the goals of accessibility for document development within an HTML or web environment is P.O.U.R. or Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust.
P – Perceivable. Perceivable information and user interface includes text alternatives for non-text content, captions and other alternatives for multimedia, presentation of content in different ways, and content that is easier to see and hear.
O – Operable. Operable user interface and navigation includes functionality available for a keyboard (rather than a mouse), and different input modalities beyond a keyboard. Users have enough time to read and use the content, content does not cause seizures and physical reactions, and users can easily navigate, find content, and determine where they are.
U – Understandable. Understandable information and user interface includes text is readable and understandable, content appears and operates in predictable ways, and users are helped to avoid and correct mistakes.
R – Robust. Robust content and reliable interpretation includes content is compatible with current and future user tools.
The P.O.U.R. acronym comes from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), an international standard developed through the W3C process. The goal of the process is to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets individual, organizational, and governmental needs internationally.
Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool from WAVE(R)
W3C (2022). Web Accessibility Tutorials
Web Accessibility Initiative. (2022). Technical and educational resources from the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative
Create accessible PDFs (from MSWord)
Create and verify PDF accessibility (using Adobe Acrobat Pro)
Create and verify PDF accessibility (using Adobe Acrobat ProDC)
- Coolidge, Amanda, Doner, Sue, Robertson, Tara, and Gray, Josie. (2019) BCCampus Open Education Accessibility Toolkit, 2nd edition. CC BY 4.0 ↵
- The UDL Guidelines, CAST, accessed August 21, 2018. ↵
- American Foundation for the Blind. Screen Readers. ↵
- Virginia Tech "Keep Calm and Describe Images" ↵
- WC3, An alt decision tree ↵
- WC3 Images tutorial ↵
- For more information about color contrast in figures, see: Keep C.A.L.M. and Check Contrast ↵
- WebAIM Contrast Checker ↵
- URLs and Screen Readers ↵
- ARIA-label ↵
- Michigan State University, LaTeX and Accessibility Issues ↵
- Miller, B. (2020) A LaTeX to XML/HTML/MathML Converter ↵
- About pandoc ↵