Online Accessibility Basics

At The College of Saint Rose, the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities coordinates academic support services for students with disabilities, such as extended time on tests, note taker support, and computer technology. Please seek their guidance and support in choosing texts for your course.

The following is informational only, and is intended to help faculty create more universally accessible content using the tools and technologies already provided by Information Technology Services. It is the responsibility of the course instructor to deliver course content in a way that is accessible by students using assistive technology.

When most people think of accessibility, they might think of something like a wheelchair-accessible bathroom stall, or a ramp instead of stairs. When we talk about online or web accessibility, we have other considerations to keep in mind: tasks which one user might take as second nature are very difficult or impossible for another user. The best way to accommodate all users is to build content and choose tools with accessibility in mind, instead of working to fix issues when you discover them.  By making accessibility part of your teaching mentality and classroom culture, all of your students can benefit and you can make your own life simpler – especially because you will not learn that your course is inaccessible after a student cannot access it. Creating accessible content is often called universal design, and can be combined with employing multiple methods of student engagement and information presentation in order to reach many types of learners.

“‘Accessibility’ is the term used to reference the degree to which a product or activity is usable by those with physical, sensory, cognitive, or learning disabilities; ‘universal design’ is an approach to product or activity creation that addresses these needs from the outset, to avoid, to the greatest extent possible, the need for ad hoc retrofitting.”

This video from Portland Community College demonstrates the specific needs of three disabled students, and can help you to understand why accessibility is a priority.

According to a 2001 study, students with disabilities spend a great deal of time attempting to manage the bureaucracy of their own disability – navigating accessible entrances (which tend to be fewer than inaccessible entrances), visiting various offices to ensure that things like extra time on tests or note-takers are set up, etc. Although it does take a little more time for you as an instructor to create accessible materials and documents, it is fairly simple, and you will be saving time and stress on students who may already be harried. Once you understand the conventions, it becomes second nature, especially if you adopt a policy of accessibility in your classroom culture. It’s obviously important to create a comfortable environment in your course, whether in-person or online, and by making space for students with disabilities to successfully receive information, you are improving their experience at The College of Saint Rose. When students with disabilities need to expend extra energy and time (resources which may already be limited due to disability) to make sure everything is in order for them, they have negative experiences and are put under additional stress, frustration, and worry.

Luckily, most tools and programs make it fairly simple to create accessible content. Microsoft has built-in Accessibility Checkers in Excel, PowerPoint, and Word.  Microsoft also has a guide to creating accessible PDFs. Similarly, Canvas provides comprehensive information on their accessibility features. There is a plethora of information available on accessible open educational resources, including the Open Professionals Education Network.

“Finally, the extent to which equal opportunities are implemented is a measure of good practice. It should be in the interests of an academic institution…to be inclusive in their practice.”

Individual content creators at The College of Saint Rose should consider the principles of Universal Design to be ‘best practice’ when developing curriculum, presentations, or other content.


There are a wide array of tools available to you at The College of Saint Rose. For your convenience, I have written some more in-depth guides on making those tools accessible, but I will cover the basics here.

If you are not sure if a tool is accessible, vendors are required to create a document called a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template which measures the product according to Section 508 standards. In the case of very specific software that is not accessible, it is possible to create an Equally Effective Alternate Access Plan (EEAAP). However, this is by no means standard operating procedure, and should be regarded as an absolute last resort.  Think of the study guides at the beginning or ends of textbook chapters – students may absorb the main concepts, but they will not understand the material like a student who read the text would.

For information on specific items, please choose from the following links:

Further Reading:


“Accessibility and Open Educational Resources.” Accessed July 14, 2016. UDL on Campus.

“About UDL.” Accessed July 14, 2016. UDL on Campus.

Holloway, Sarah. “The Experience of Higher Education from the Perspective of Disabled Students.” Disability & Society, 16, no. 4 (2001): 597-615. Accessed July 15, 2016.

Caldwell, Ben, Michael Cooper, Loretta Guarino, and Gregg Vanderheiden. “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0.” W3. Last modified 11 December 2008.

Coombs, Michael. Making Online Teaching Accessible: Inclusive Course Design for Students with Disabilities. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2010.