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Creating Accessible Content

This guide will show how to create accessible documents in various formats.


Welcome! Here you will find information and resources  that will help you create fully accessible course content and other documents. Creating accessible documents and content is beneficial to everyone, not just those needing accommodations. This includes the document author. For example, have you ever been in a noisy environment and watched a news cast with closed captions? You were able to follow along without hearing the audio of the news cast.  Would you like to be able to auto-create a table of contents for that long report you created in MS Word? This requires correctly setting up the structure of the document, which enhances overall accessibility. 

You can navigate this guide using the tabs on the left hand side of the screen.

Accessibility in Higher Education

According to research commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Forrester Data in 2004, "57 percent of working-age computer users in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 64 (more than 74 million Americans) could benefit from accessible technology because of mild-to-severe vision, hearing, dexterity, speech, and cognitive difficulties and impairments that interfere with their ability to perform routine tasks — including their use of computers." According to a U. S. Census Bureau report from July 2012, nearly 1 in 5 people in the U. S. have some sort of disability. So most likely, faculty will have at least one student with some sort of disability. 

These two videos will help set the stage for your learning about web accessibility for online education.

A Personal Look at Accessibility in Higher Education

To Care and Comply: Accessibility of Online Course Content


US Laws Related to Accessibility Requirements

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990

The ADA is a broad civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, architectural design, transportation, examinations and courses, and other services offering "public accommodation." While the ADA says nothing explicitly about web accessibility,  many of the web accessibility lawsuits in the United States invoke the ADA as the basis for the legal complaint because of the language about "public accommodation."

The ADA applies to:

  • Commercial or private entities that own, operate, lease, or lease to places of public accommodation. Essentially this refers to businesses and other organizations open to the public with the exception of religious entities and private clubs.
  • Federal and state government entities.

Learn more about the ADA:

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 is an anti-discrimination measure comparable to the ADA that addresses an individual's accommodations providing equal access to all programs, services, and activities that receive federal funding. Institutions of higher education are subject to Section 504 provisions. Federal funds include grant monies awarded to faculty and staff as well as federal financial aid programs.

Learn more about Section 504:

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires the U.S. federal government to take accessibility into account when procuring information technologies: websites, telephones, copiers, computers, and other technologies, including both hardware and software. The parts of Section 508 most relevant to web accessibility are "1194.21 — Software applications and operating systems," "1194.22 — Web-based intranet and internet information and applications," and "1194.31 — Functional performance criteria." In January 2017, Section 508 underwent a refresh that was many years in the making. A significant change is that the WCAG 2.0 level A and AA guidelines are now incorporated by reference and required by Section 508. Prior to the refresh, Section 508 included its own list of requirements which were a modified subset of WCAG 1.0 (not WCAG 2.0).

Section 508 applies to:

  • US federal government entities only; but the effects of Section 508 have permeated the information technology landscape because so many businesses, non-profits, and local and state governments do business with the federal government. To sell to the federal government, private entities have to offer accessible products and services.
  • Entities receiving federal funding, including institutions of higher learning. Federal funds include grant monies awarded to faculty and staff as well as federal financial aid programs.

Learn more about Section 508:

Types of Disabilities and Assistive Technologies

The types of disabilities you may encounter include:

  • Visual: Blindness, low vision, color-blindness​
  • Auditory: Deafness and hard-of-hearing​
  • Physical: Inability to use a mouse, slow response time, limited fine motor control​
  • Cognitive: Learning disabilities, distractability, inability to remember or focus on large amounts of information​

Visual Impairment

Blind and low vision users may depend on the use of a screen reader such as Job Access With Speech (JAWS) or Non-visual Desktop Access (NVDA) for Windows or VoiceOver for Mac. A screen reader is software that individuals who cannot see use to interact with the computer, especially the operating system. A screen reader narrates the text of all menu options and programs out loud to the user. Some screen readers can even be set up to allow for Braille output on an attached device. The goal of the program is to allow the user to navigate the computer and its options the way that individuals who can see scan the desktop and follow the menu commands of program with their eyes. It is important to note that screen reader users tell the computer what to do by using keyboard commands and do not activate their choices by pointing and clicking with a mouse, as they cannot see what they are pointing to and clicking on. Correct document structure ensures that keyboard navigation works in the proper reading order within the document.

Screenreaders can give users information about the structure of a document such as a list of major sections on the page (headings), a list of all links, etc. allowing users to navigate to a specific part of the page. Screenreader users also depend on alternate information for visual components such as images, charts, videos, etc. This highlights the importance of correctly structuring documents and providing alternate means for accessing information for visual components. Correct document structure is also of universal benefit when building a table of contents or converting to other formats. We will cover this in later modules.

Some users may also suffer from color blindness. Color blindness is not a form of blindness at all, but a deficiency in the way you see color. Red-green color blindness is the most common, followed by blue-yellow color blindness. A complete absence of color vision, total color blindnessis rare. Many users may also have problems with color contrast. So you should never depend on color alone to convey information and ensure proper contrast where colors are used. Again, we will cover this in later modules.

Here is sample video of someone using a screenreader.

Auditory Impairment

Deaf students may not use any assistive technology while those hard-of-hearing may use in-ear hearing aids. Both benefit from text alternatives for video and audio such an transcripts and closed captions. Even those without auditory impairments may benefit from this. Imagine watching a video in a noisy environment or a video that is in a foreign language or low audio.


As the name implies, deafblind students suffer from both deafness and blindness, so most of the previous discussion for both deaf and blind students applies. However, deafblind users may use a braille reader, as in the following picture, to "read" their course material.

Person using a braille reader on a computer

Additional Information

The University of Washington’s federally funded program Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology (DO-IT) provides information, resources, activities, and multimedia around common disability issues. DO-IT endeavors to empower individuals with disabilities as well as provide resources to faculty and staff in post-secondary education to improve the experiences of students with disabilities. The website contains specific information about invisible disabilities, as well as other disability related information.

Accessibility vs. Accommodations

Many faculty and staff are accustomed to providing accommodations and understand the basic procedures in doing so. You may have had students who require additional test time, a note-taker, or special textbooks. However, ensuring learning experiences are accessible from the start, including those that use technology, is often new territory for faculty and staff. Understanding the balance between accessibility and accommodations and the roles of different faculty and staff are important.  


In education, accessibility is a proactive approach to ensuring that learning experiences are as free from barriers for students as we can make them. Accessibility is giving forethought to how you design your courses. It is applying pedagogical approaches such as universal design for learning principles and technical standards such as section 508 and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. It helps us meet the requirement that our courses are accessible “out of the box” and reduces the time students may have to wait on us to provide accommodations. Accessibility helps the students achieve independence and provide as equal of an experience as possible for them.


Accommodations are things we do during instruction to meet a specific and unique need of a student that we can’t do ahead of time. For example, if the learning objective of an online music course requires a student to listen to a classical piece and identify by ear key aspects of that piece, then an accommodation for a student with a hearing impairment would be more appropriate than altering the assignment as it is being designed. However, if an objective required students to visually identify written lyrics, then during design we may ensure that the blind student can access the content by using a screen reader and no accommodations would be needed.

The Daytona State College Office of Counseling and Accessibility Services can provide additional information.

Perspectives on Inclusion

At the heart of it, accessibility is about equality. Dr. Whitney Rapp, Associate Professor of Inclusive Education, says, “It's not just about following the letter of the law but the spirit of the law.” It is our burden and obligation as educators to ensure all students have an equal playing field by making sure our curriculum is accessible - from the start. Accommodations alone are no longer enough.

The following two short clips are from Dr. Rapp from the SUNY FACT2 Accessibility Symposium held on November 6th, 2015.

Shifting the Paradigm (05:44)

How the Letter of the Law and Spirit of the Law May Be Different (06:54)

Redefining Disability

There can be no substitute for listening to the perspectives of individuals with disabilities on their disabilities and how they interact with the environment. As you heard from Dr. Rapp, in recent years proponents of the field of disability studies have moved the conversation from the medical model of disability, which views disability as a deficit in the person, to the social model of disability, which views disability as the result of an inaccessible environment. The following blog is written by a woman with a physical disability, muscular dystrophy; she relies on a wheelchair for mobility and personal care attendants for activities of daily living. She offers an interesting perspective on inclusion and the disabling impact of her environment on her ability to perform major life activities.

Redefining Disability by DeeScribes