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Distance Learning | School of Professional Studies | Northwestern University

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How Do I Make My Course Resources Accessible?

While not a part of the WCAG 2.0 guidelines, the accessibility of class resources–learning technologies, textbooks, journal articles, PDFs, ebooks, etc.–is an important consideration for an accessible online course. Like other aspects of accessible design, this requires some additional forethought and planning, but it will ensure that all of your students will be able to engage with all of the material. Ultimately, the most important consideration for helping students access course resources is to share a list of those resources as early as possible. This will allow students to investigate alternatives and seek accommodations if necessary.

Learning Technology

There are countless tools available for use in online courses. Video recording software, interactive graphic creators, collaborative annotation tools, animated message boards–the options can seem limitless. And there are numerous factors to consider when picking a tool for your course. Accessibility needs to be one of them. More details can be found in the blog post Vetting Web Tools for Accessibility, but the key steps are:

  1. Look for an accessibility statement on the product’s web page, and if one isn’t available, contact the vendor and ask for accessibility information. This may come in the form of a VPAT, a standardized template that contains a detailed breakdown of a product’s accessibility. It’s self-reported, though, and may not always be reliable. Nothing beats hands-on testing!
  2. Test keyboard navigation. Set your mouse aside and try to navigate through the product just using your keyboard. Can you access all the buttons and information without a mouse? If not, the product isn’t accessible.
  3. Check out the use of color and contrast in the product. Is there a high level of contrast between the background and the text? Does it use indicators besides color to convey information? Again, if not, the product is not fully accessible.
  4. If the tool uses audio, video, or static images, it needs to have a way to add text equivalents, either in the form of transcripts, captions, or alt text. Without those, the tool isn’t accessible to all users.

PDFs and eBooks

Students who are blind, low-vision, or colorblind, have dyslexia, and have mobility disabilities may all face challenges with ebooks and PDFs. These electronic documents are, understandably, a very popular resource in online courses. However, when it comes to accessibility, not all electronic documents are created equal.

PDFs can be highly accessible, with appropriate organization and document tagging. Two of the most important things to focus on when selecting PDFs for a course are quality and OCR (Optical Character Recognition) compatibility. A high-quality PDF is clear and easy to read, ideally with alt-text for images and headings for easy navigation. A low-quality PDF might be a scan of a book chapter with hand-written notes in the margins. OCR means that the text in the PDF has been scanned and configured to read as text, rather than as an image. You can easily tell if a PDF is OCR compatible if individual words can be highlighted or searched.

When selecting an ebook, check the format (or formats) that it is available in, as some are more accessible than others. For example, epub, the most common ebook format, is now aligned with the DAISY standards, which set forth publishing guidelines for making ebooks accessible. HTML formatted ebooks also tend to be more accessible to screen readers and other assistive technology. The best thing that can be done with ebook selection, though, is to identify and share the ebooks early, so that students who may need alternatives can get them before class begins.


Numerous factors go into textbook selection, but accessibility considerations are not always one of them. Alison May, the Director of AccessibleNU, describes some of the challenges faced by students who require alternative textbooks:

  • Is this a book that is easy to get? Does it come from a publisher who’s generally easy to get in alternate formats? … And we ultimately end up having to cut up the student’s book and scan it. And do we actually get to check it and make sure the OCR didn’t make any mistakes? No. We just don’t have the staff. And that’s much harder to get to a distance learning student than it is a student who can swing by and pick it up.
  • When choosing textbooks, it’s worth investigating if alternate versions are available. Can a large-text version be purchased? Or a Braille version? Regardless of availability, it is again extremely helpful to provide the list of textbooks as early in the process as possible so students can locate alternatives.
  • Another consideration in textbook accessibility is cost. The often-high cost of textbooks affects all students, but it can hit students with disabilities disproportionately hard. People with disabilities are more likely to have lower incomes than their nondisabled peers, as well as higher medical costs (APA Disability and Socioeconomic Status Fact Sheet). This could make obtaining a textbook, especially an alternative edition, a costly challenge for a student with disabilities. When picking a textbook, consider the price tag. Is the latest edition necessary? How much of the textbook will students read–could the chapters be placed on Course Reserves for free? These alternative options will make your course more accessible to all students.