Why Accessible Material Helps Everyone

Accessible materials are a good basic practice precisely because they are often easier for all students to understand and process.
by LSA Learning & Teaching Technology Consultants

Creating accessible materials helps all learners in your course and provides them with equal access to course materials and learning opportunities. Digital accessibility like consistent semantic markup and clean links makes it easier for everyone to navigate and understand the materials and activities that you put in your Canvas course site. This includes not just documents and videos, but also assignment directions and test questions. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 19% of undergraduates in the US report a disability[1], and in our current pandemic even more students are dealing with severe stress and uncertain internet access. Accessibility practices help remove barriers to your student learning and lower the extra cognitive load of understanding poorly formatted materials or instructions. It will benefit not only students with different types of disabilities, but also people who come from different language backgrounds, and those who may not be familiar with the topic. Here are five concrete steps you can take in your course to improve the accessibility of your course materials.

1. Use Headings, tables, and lists to mark up your text 

Headings, tables, and lists are built-in features in Canvas, MS Word, Powerpoint, Google Docs, and many other tools. By using the markup buttons to format text as, for example, Header 2 or a bullet-point list, you allow assistive technologies such as screen readers to indicate a header or list. This helps learners to quickly navigate between important sections in the document, whether they use assistive technology or not, and also keeps your formatting consistent. 

  • use heading levels rather than just manually change the text size and attributes (bold, italics, etc)

  • create formatted tables for data display, using built in styles rather than manually changing the background color or size of certain rows and columns

  • create lists using the built-in list buttons, instead of simply adding manual numbers or using tabs or spaces for indentation

2. Provide alternative (alt) text for images

Adding alt-text to your images allows screen readers to describe the images to visually impaired users so that they can understand it. Canvas, MS Word, and PowerPoint all provide options to add alt-text to your images. For decorative images that do not convey any content, such as borders or decorative banners, leave the alt-text blank. Canvas even provides a check-box in image settings, to mark them as decorative. 

3. Create Accessible links

Making hyperlinks accessible is one of the more important factors of online accessibility. A clickable link should provide users with information on where the link will take them when it’s clicked. Use link text such as the title of the linked document, or “more information on incarceration” or “tomorrow’s quiz.” Do not use words such as "click here" or "more" for link text, as that does nothing to help readers identify what the link is. Similarly, do not use full URLs, which often do not give any real indication of what they link to and will be read letter-by-letter by screen readers. Only use the full URL in a document you’ll distribute in print, where readers will be required to re-type the address.

4. Use captions for videos.

Provide captions for your videos; this will assist everyone in comprehension of the materials, including  international students, those with hearing disabilities, and students who have to study in noisy locations. Similarly, provide a transcript for audio files. You have the option to order captions and transcripts for all of your videos and audio files uploaded to your My Media in Canvas course. 

5. Provide good color contrast. 

When you are choosing colors for your document, such as header colors or PowerPoint theme colors, make sure to provide high enough color contrast between the background and foreground for easy reading by most users. Use color-contrast-checking tools, such as the Canvas Accessibility Checker or WebAIM’s Color Contrast Checker, which will allow you to see if the colors you are using meet the guidelines. Note that some students will actually need a low-contrast view to most easily read your materials, so it’s a good idea to leave your Canvas pages and assignments un-colored. This will allow each student’s personal browser settings to take effect.

These steps will help make your online materials and activities easier for all your students to understand and navigate through. If you are interested in more comprehensive steps you can take to improve accessibility, we have provided several excellent places to start in the Further Reading below, and you can always contact us directly at LSATSLearningTeachingConsultants@umich.edu if you have questions!

Further Reading:

Some helpful tools:



[1] Snyder, T. D., de Brey, C., & Dillow, S. A. (2019). Digest of Education Statistics 2017, NCES 2018-070. National Center for Education Statistics., Table 311.10


Release Date: 06/18/2020
Category: Learning & Teaching Consulting; Teaching Tips
Tags: Technology Services