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Teaching and Learning - Accessibility Guidelines for Courses Using Digital Resources

As higher education increasingly moves toward online platforms, it is important to ensure that university-level courses are accessible to all students, regardless of the Learning Management System (LMS) or platform used. Accessibility means that individuals with disabilities have equivalent access to information and functionalities as individuals without disabilities. This article provides general guidelines to help design and deliver university courses that are accessible to everyone.


The University of Wisconsin System is responsible for creating a reasonably equitable and accessible learning environment for all people regardless of disability or constraint. This obligation is asserted by the following legal statutes and UW System policies:

While UW-Milwaukee students may secure accommodations and assistance from the Accessibility Resource Center, all UWM employees are responsible for using accessible tools, and producing accessible content.

To help instructors achieve this goal, this article describes technical standards, and offers best practices so instructors can make their courses as accessible as possible.

Accessibility is not a destination, it is an ongoing iterative process. Meeting the technical standard and following best practices does not mean an accessibility concern won't present itself. But instructors who are aware of accessibility and who make a good faith effort to make their courses accessible will be in a far better position to address an accessibility concern, and will encounter concerns far less frequently.

Who is Responsible for Making Content Accessible?

As a consequence of the above listed policies and legal obligations, accessibility is an obligation everyone must strive to meet.

  • Instructors are responsible for ensuring the content they produce is accessible, regardless of the platform or tool.
  • UWM is responsible for providing tools which are accessible for students and instructors, and facilitating the production of content which is accessible.
  • UWM staff are responsible for producing accessible content in their line of work.
  • Third-party vendors (such as textbook publishers, lab tool vendors, courseware vendors, etc.) are responsible for making tools that are accessible, and are also responsible for empowering instructors and students to make their own content which is accessible.
  • This standard applies to all UWM activities (for-credit, Continuing Education, business operations, etc.) as the governing laws and policies do not include or exclude specific activities or audiences.

Accessibility Standards

  • Instructors are strongly encouraged to meet the WCAG 2.0 AA accessibility standard or newer in implementing their courses.
  • UW System Digital Learning Environment tools are required to comply with WCAG 2.0 AA, which also means tools integrated with Canvas are Section 508 compliant under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Getting Started

Designing Accessible Course Materials

Text Accessibility

Ensure all text materials meet the following guidelines:

  • Readable font: Use simple, clear fonts. Make sure text size is adjustable for different devices and viewing preferences.
    • In Canvas, avoid changing the default font of the page. Content produced using Rich Content Editor functionality meets this standard.
    • In third-party tools, use Arial or Verdana and avoid overly decorative fonts.
  • Contrast: Make sure there's significant contrast between text and background color to assist those with visual impairments. Avoid color-coding information as it may not be visible to colorblind students. More info: - Is there enough contrast between text and its background color?
  • Use headings and structure: Use headings and subheadings consistently to structure your content. This makes it easier to navigate for students using screen readers.
    • Headings should be sequential. In Canvas, and in most other platforms, start with H2. The next subheading should be H3.
  • Avoid using text in images: Provide alternate text for images that add value to the document or page. Don't use images of words. If an image is purely decorative, denote the image as decorative or don't provide alternate text.
    • In Canvas, use features of the Rich Content Editor to make image alternate text accessible.
    • In third-party tools, vendors must provide accessible images unless you as the instructor are creating the image.
    • Do you need help writing alternate text? Some AI services like Bing AI can help with writing alternate text. Upload your image, then ask it: "Write a brief alternate text description for this image."
  • Use table as-intended: Use tables for data, not layout.

Audio and Visual Content Accessibility

For any audio or visual content:

  • Subtitles and captions: Provide captions for all video content and transcripts for audio content. If possible, provide an audio description of important visuals in videos.
    • Videos uploaded to Kaltura My Media and MediaSpace are automatically captioned. Captions need to be reviewed and edited for accuracy to meet accessibility guidelines. See: Kaltura (Captioning) - Captioning Kaltura Videos
    • Third party tools such as textbook publishers and online courseware should be professionally captioned by the vendor. If the vendor is integrated with Canvas, failure to caption a video is a violation of their agreements with the UW System. Let CETL know of the problem for administrative assistance to enforce compliance.
  • Describe visuals: Describe key visual elements verbally during lectures or in text for recorded content to assist students with visual impairments.
  • Avoid auto-play: Allow students to start audio/visual content manually to avoid surprising those with sensory sensitivities.
  • Provide transcripts: While not necessary for video, transcripts can help make the video content more searchable. Transcripts are highly encouraged for audio-only. See: How do I download transcripts of videos uploaded to My Media in Canvas

Consistent Structure

Create a consistent structure across your courses, and where possible, leverage consistent elements and wording in your program, department, or school/college. Consistency helps students navigate content more easily and reduces confusion, especially for those using screen readers.

While it is tempting to make colorful and creative designs for pages, going beyond what Canvas provides can be disorienting and harmful to students.

Communication and Interaction

Accessible Communication

For synchronous or asynchronous communication:

  • Transcriptions: Provide transcriptions of live discussions if possible.
  • Use plain language: Avoid jargon and complex language. If you have to use specific terminology, make sure it's well explained. Avoid idioms or provide alternate explanations. 

Accessible Assignments

When creating assignments:

  • Multiple formats: Allow assignments to be completed in multiple formats (e.g., written, video, audio, etc.) to provide flexibility.
  • Time flexibility: For online quizzes or exams, allow for flexibility in time limits to accommodate students who may need more time due to their disability. See: Canvas - Extending or Adjusting Quiz and Assignment Dates for a Student

Universal Design

Choice in Engagement

Give students a choice in how they engage with material. The more options they have, the more likely they are to find a method that suits their needs.

Respect for Diversity

Diversity includes not only different backgrounds and experiences but also different ways of accessing content. Design your course to respect and cater to this diversity.

Student Feedback

Always encourage student feedback regarding accessibility. They are the best resource for understanding specific needs and potential issues with your course's accessibility.

By implementing these guidelines, you will make your university-level course more accessible and inclusive, improving the learning experience for all students. Remember, accessibility isn't just about compliance with laws or regulations – it's about creating an environment where everyone can learn and contribute.

For Further Assistance

If you have questions on how to make your course more accessible, contact the CETL Support Commons.

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OwnerDavid D.GroupCETL
Created2023-06-21 10:29:30Updated2023-10-25 10:58:10
SitesUW-Milwaukee Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning
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