7. Make Resources Accessible for Students With Disabilities | Readings

Anita R. Walz

It is important to know how to design documents. This section provides an introductory to intermediate overview of basic accessibility features for all readers, and especially those who are blind or have low vision. There are many types of disabilities. What helps one person might cause problems for another; this chapter focuses on understanding the priorities for accessibility and addressing primarily vision-related accessiblity approaches and skill development.

Learning Objectives

Learners should be able to:

  • Make the case for why accessibility matters.
  • Be able to articulate the P.O.U.R. (Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, Robust) framework for accessibility.
  • Describe and implement basic accessibility measures for documents.
  • Gain experience using one or more accessibility checkers.
  • Identify additional resources to progress in understanding accessibility frameworks, user needs, tools, experiences, and possible solutions.


  • Skim the entire chapter and briefly review the types of resources and tools provided under section “understanding and implementing P.O.U.R.” and in the “Resources and Additional Reading.”
  • Read the 15-minute guide for creating accessible documents[1] from the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials.
  • View the creating accessible documents video playlist (approximately 20 minutes)[2] from the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials.
  • Choose a file type or technical platform which would likely be used by a PreK-12 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[3] 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 create proactively 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.

Universal 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 ideally 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.[4][5] Because we are working with the 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 commands to navigate or perform more specialized functions within the structure of a page or document. The following videos demonstrate use of screen readers by readers who are blind or low vision.

Trace Dissemination. Introduction to Screen Readers [Video 7:05] (for documents and websites)[6]

TheDOITCenter. Using a Screen Reader [Video 7:45] (for websites) [7]

Further introductory information on screen readers is available from the American Foundation for the Blind[8].

The P.O.U.R. Acronym

A helpful acronym for remembering the goals of accessibility for document development especially within an HTML or web environment is P.O.U.R. or Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust.

  • P—Perceivable. Perceivable information and user interface include alternatives to meet individual needs. For example: text alternatives for non-text content, captions, and alternatives for multimedia. Perceivable focuses on 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 just 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)[9], 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.

Understanding and Implementing P.O.U.R.

The National Center on Accessible Educational Materials at CAST (National AEM) further expands and applies the P.O.U.R. Principles in their webpage designing for accessibility using the P.O.U.R. principles:[10]

Perceivable: To present information in multiple ways, one may:

  • Add text descriptions to your images.
  • Include closed captions and transcripts.
  • Provide sufficient color contrast.
  • Do not use color alone.
  • Make your text readable and legible.

To learn more about making your documents perceivable and building your skills see: https://aem.cast.org/create/perceivable

Operable: To help learners navigate information independently using their preferred tools, one may:

  • Provide a clear structure with headings.
  • Create descriptive links.
  • Check for keyboard accessibility.
  • Provide sufficient time.
  • Avoid content that flashes

To learn more about making your documents operable and building your skills, see: https://aem.cast.org/create/operable

Understandable: Using consistent and predictable design to support learners’ understanding one may:

  • Provide clear directions.
  • Aim for consistency.
  • Use plain language.
  • Identify the language.

To learn more about making your content more understandable and for resources to build your skills, see: https://aem.cast.org/create/understandable

Robust: Content that works for learners on current and future technologies, including assistive technologies, is robust. To make your content robust you may:

  • Provide descriptive metadata.
  • Perform an accessibility check.
  • Test for accessibility with people.

To learn more about making your content robust, and to build your skills, see: https://aem.cast.org/create/robust.

Tools for Getting Started

S.L.I.D.E. Acronym for Creating Accessible Documents

Also useful is National AEM’s S.L.I.D.E. acronym[11] which provides an entry point for authors working in MSWord or GoogleDocs that may be new to implementing accessibility in open educational resources or other documents:

  • S—Styles are used for section headings.
  • L—Links are descriptive and meaningful.
  • I—Images have text descriptions.
  • D—Design is perceivable, with high contrast.
  • E—Evaluation is holistic and authentic.

The National AEM Center at CAST provides two guides with background information and step-by-step instruction for accessibility and open educational resources created in MSWord or Google environments. Both are released under CC BY SA 4.0. These include:

Accessibility Solutions for Readers Who are Blind or have Low Vision

Meeting some common accessibility needs is possible. The following list provides tasks a document creator can do to proactively improve their documents for a diversity of visual abilities.

  1. 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. A well-organized document benefits everyone.
  2. 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.
  3. Describe visual elements using alternative text (alt-text), in-context descriptions, or long-text descriptions. Figures, diagrams, drawings, and photos can add a great deal of value to a document but are of reduced value to people with visual impairments. Describing these elements in the surrounding text, in alt-text, or linked and at the end of a section or chapter as long-descriptions can provide the information intended to be conveyed by the image in a way that is accessible to 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.[12][13][14]
  4. Use transcripts or closed-captioning for audio-only materials. Audio materials are particularly problematic for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. As audio materials are often problematic for listeners who are accessing materials not in their native language, dialect, or regional accent, transcripts aid a broader audience than those who are deaf or experience hearing loss.
  5. Color. There is a lot to say about color. First, avoid using color as the only way to convey information. Use something other than or in addition to color, such as dashed or dotted lines or patterns to convey information.[15] 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[16] 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 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 available can better inform document creation practices.
  6. Links. In a digital environment, 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. 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[17] For more context, see this Rebus Community post.[18]. A screen reader will read the ARIA label instead of reciting a lengthy and perhaps annoying URL.
  7. 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 end-of-chapter resource list below for more details.
  8. 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 in which fields alt-text for an image is stored and which fields screen reader softwares access for alternative text. Because mathematical formulas can be difficult to typeset, it can be tempting to merely insert pictures of mathematical equations. If alt-text is not included and included in fields accessible to the screenreader software a reader is using, pictures of equations are not 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 syntax is supported by that system. There are three main paths, some of which are convertible to other forms, some with some effort.
    1. 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 and math markup languages TeX, LaTeX, and MathML can be entered directly into MathType.
    2. MathML is an XML markup language designed to display both mathematical structure and meaning. Because MathML with MathJax[19] 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.
    3. 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 a popular typesetting approach in academic authoring and in some disciplinary publishing contexts 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.[20] LaTeX can also be converted to HTML and MathML, which may make it more possible for screen readers to access on the web. This can be done using TeX4ht[21] or via the command line using PanDoc[22] or via other methods.[23]

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 accessibility into the originating source file (.docx, GoogleDocs, etc.) and to share that file rather than only sharing a PDF that has an added layer of remediation.

Resources and Additional Reading


National Center on Accessible Educational Materials for Learning at CAST https://aem.cast.org


Anderson, Talea. (2021). “Learning More: Tutorial and Resources” in Accessibility Case Studies for Scholarly Communication Librarians and Practitioners. https://opentext.wsu.edu/accessibility-case-studies/back-matter/learning-more.

Coolidge, Amanda, Doner, Sue, Robertson, Tat, and Gray, Josie. (2019) BCCampus open education accessibility toolkit, 2nd edition. https://opentextbc.ca/accessibilitytoolkit [Some content is applicable for a primarily HTML environment.]

Elder, Abby (2019). “Accessibility and Usability”. The OER Starter Kit. https://iastate.pressbooks.pub/oerstarterkit/chapter/accessibility

Organ, Nancy. (2021). An incomplete guide to accessible data visualization. https://towardsdatascience.com/an-incomplete-guide-to-accessible-data-visualization-33f15bfcc400

National Center on Accessible Educational Materials. (2022). Protocol for Creating Accessible OER. https://aem.cast.org/get-started/resources/2022/protocol-for-creating-accessible-oer CC BY SA 4.0.

National Center on Accessible Educational Materials. (2021). Protocol for Curating Accessible OER. https://aem.cast.org/get-started/resources/2021/protocol-for-curating-open-educational-resources CC BY SA 4.0.

SETDA. (2014). The accessibility of learning content for all students, including students with disabilities, must be address in the shift to digital instructional materials. SETDA Policy Brief. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED545198.pdf

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

Check contrast of colors used in PowerPoint

Convert between different color value formats (e.g. RGB to Hex or HEX to RBG)

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.


Creating Accessible Documents from the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials at CAST (includes links to closed-captioned videos) https://aem.cast.org/create/creating-accessible-documents

Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool from WAVE(R) https://wave.webaim.org

W3C (2022). Web Accessibility Tutorials. https://www.w3.org/WAI/resources/#tutorials

W3C (2022). Where should I start? (to learn about web accessibility). https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/faq/#start

W3C. (2021). Web Accessibility Fundamentals Overview (resource list). https://www.w3.org/WAI/fundamentals

WCAG. (2021) Understanding the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. https://wcag.com/resource/what-is-wcag

Web Accessibility Initiative. (2022). Technical and educational resources from the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative


Protocol for Creating Accessible OER in MSOffice or Google Workspace from the AEM Center at CAST. https://aem.cast.org/get-started/resources/2022/protocol-for-creating-accessible-oer

LibreOffice accessibility documentation. https://www.libreoffice.org/get-help/accessibility

OpenOffice accessibility whitepaper. https://www.openoffice.org/ui/accessibility/whitepaper.html

OpenOffice accessibility [wiki]. https://wiki.openoffice.org/wiki/Accessibility

Check contrast of colors used in MSWord. https://vt4help.service-now.com/sp?id=kb_article&sys_id=be169252dbdc2b041c1e86171b96195a#word

Create Accessible Word Documents (menu of videos to create and check MSWord document accessibility). https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/video-check-the-accessibility-of-your-document-9d660cba-1fcd-45ad-a9d1-c4f4b5eb5b7d

Make your PowerPoint presentations accessible to people with disabilities. https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/make-your-powerpoint-presentations-accessible-to-people-with-disabilities-6f7772b2-2f33-4bd2-8ca7-dae3b2b3ef25

Create accessible tables in MSWord. https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/video-create-accessible-tables-in-word-cb464015-59dc-46a0-ac01-6217c62210e5 (video)

Accessibility checker for MSOffice products. https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/improve-accessibility-with-the-accessibility-checker-a16f6de0-2f39-4a2b-8bd8-5ad801426c7f

Slide Decks

Webinar on Creating Accessible Documents and Slide Decks from the National AEM Center at CAST. https://aem.cast.org/get-started/events/2020/04/creating-accessible-docs-slide-decks


Create accessible PDFs (from MSWord) https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/topic/create-accessible-pdfs-064625e0-56ea-4e16-ad71-3aa33bb4b7ed

Create and verify PDF accessibility (using Adobe Acrobat Pro) https://helpx.adobe.com/acrobat/using/create-verify-pdf-accessibility.html

Create and verify PDF accessibility (using Adobe Acrobat ProDC) https://www.adobe.com/accessibility/products/acrobat/using-acrobat-pro-accessibility-checker.html


Creating Accessible Publications with ePub from the National AEM Center at CAST. https://aem.cast.org/create/creating-accessible-publications-epub

  1. National Center on Accessible Educational Materials. [n.d.] Creating accessible documents. https://aem.cast.org/create/creating-accessible-documents
  2. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLgtNP6aow70u-nADphT4_0OEb2E5o_CNI
  3. U.S. Department of Justice. (1990). Americans with Disabilities Act as amended. https://www.ada.gov/law-and-regs/ada
  4. Coolidge, Amanda, Doner, Sue, Robertson, Tara, and Gray, Josie. (2019) BCCampus Open Education Accessibility Toolkit, 2nd edition. https://opentextbc.ca/accessibilitytoolkit. CC BY 4.0
  5. CAST. (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. http://udlguidelines.cast.org
  6. Trace Dissemination. (2014). Introduction to screen readers. https://youtu.be/o_mvO6EQ0tM
  7. TheDOITCenter. (2018). Using a screen reader. https://youtu.be/7Rs3YpsnfoI
  8. American Foundation for the Blind. [n.d.]. Screen Readers. https://www.afb.org/blindness-and-low-vision/using-technology/assistive-technology-products/screen-readers
  9. W3C Web Accessibility Initiative. (2023). WCAG 2 Overview. https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag
  10. National Center on Accessible Educational Materials. [n.d.]. Designing for accessibility. https://aem.cast.org/create/designing-accessibility-pour CC BY-SA 4.0
  11. National Center on Accessible Educational Materials. [n.d.] Creating accessible documents. https://aem.cast.org/create/creating-accessible-documents CC BY SA 4.0.
  12. Virginia Tech. [n.d.]. Keep Calm and Describe Images. https://www.assist.vt.edu/calm/describe-images.html
  13. Eggert, E., Abou-Zahra, S., & Elton, B., (2017). An alt decision tree. W3C Web Accessibility Initiative. https://www.w3.org/WAI/tutorials/images/decision-tree
  14. Eggert, E., Abou-Zahra, S., & Elton, B., (2022). Images tutorial. W3C Web Accessibility Initiative. https://www.w3.org/WAI/tutorials/images
  15. For more information about color contrast in figures, see: Virginia Tech Accessible Technologies. [n.d.]. Check Contrast. https://www.assist.vt.edu/calm/check-contrast.html
  16. Web Accessibility In Mind. [n.d.]. Constrast Checker. WebAIM. https://webaim.org/resources/contrastchecker
  17. A11Y-101. [n.d.]. Aria-label. https://www.a11y-101.com/development/aria-label
  18. Rebus Community. (2019). URLs and Screen Readers. https://web.archive.org/web/20211117224653/https://rebus.community/t/urls-and-screen-readers-for-an-annotated-bibliography/1450
  19. MathJax. (2023). https://www.mathjax.org
  20. MSU Libraries. [n.d.]. LaTeX: A basic introduction to writing and managing citations in LaTeX. https://libguides.lib.msu.edu/c.php?g=995742&p=8207771
  21. TeX4ht. [n.d.] https://tug.org/tex4ht/index.html
  22. MacFarlane J. (2022). Pandoc: A universal document converter. https://pandoc.org
  23. Miller, B. (2020) A LaTeX to XML/HTML/MathML Converter


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Making Open Educational Resources with and for PreK12 Copyright © 2023 by Anita R. Walz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.