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Accessible Course Resources & Technology

The accessibility of class resources–learning technologies, textbooks, journal articles, PDFs, ebooks, and so on–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.

Who Needs Accessible Course Resources & Technology?

Virtually all disabled students will benefit from providing accessible course resources and technology. Students with print disabilities--that is, disabilities that affect someone’s ability to read printed text--benefit from accessible texts. Students with sensory or mobility disabilities will benefit from accessible software or websites that work well with assistive technology.

Consider Costs

The cost of textbooks and other course resources is another aspect of accessibility. Disabled people often have increased medical costs and decreased incomes, which can make the purchase of costly textbooks a barrier to education. Students from lower socio-economic statuses may also struggle to afford expensive textbooks. When selecting a text, consider:

  • Is the latest edition necessary?
  • Do students need to read the whole book, or can a few chapters be placed in Course Reserves?
  • Is this book available at libraries?
  • Is there a free or low-cost alternative?

Open Educational Resources (OERs) can also help cut down on costs significantly. OERs are free or low-cost academic publications, including textbooks, often written by instructors. OpenStax is one excellent, centralized starting point for OERs. They also have a robust accessibility policy, and the majority of their texts are designed to be accessible.

When including resources that students will have to pay for, whether it’s a textbook, software, or subscription, include the cost in the syllabus so students can budget appropriately. Springing costs on students halfway through the course can create huge amounts of stress and financial anxiety.

Text Resources

Digital texts are both a benefit and a challenge for accessibility. Students who may struggle to read a printed text can use tools like Read&Write Gold (available for free for all NU students, faculty, and staff) to hear a digital text read aloud. Other students who need to customize the text with high contrast and magnification can do so with a digital version. But in order for these benefits to be available, the texts have to be formatted correctly.


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, bookmarks, 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. If you can highlight a line of text, it’s OCR compatible. If your attempt to highlight causes the entire page to be selected, that means the program is treating it as an image. Tools like SensusAccess may be able to help rectify the issue, or you may need to look for a different, digital version.


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, and accessibility considerations should be one of them.

Is this a book that is easy to get? Does it come from a publisher who’s generally easy to get in alternate formats? Inaccessible textbooks can result in AccessibleNU staff cutting up a textbook to scan it in, page by page, into a PDF, which can come with its own problems. Giving students the option of a print or digital version of the textbook can make a huge difference.

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.

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. 

When investigating a new tool, technology, or piece of software to use in a course, you may need to do a bit of investigative work to uncover how accessible it is. With the right mindset, this part can be kind of fun as you play detective to get to the bottom of the accessibility mystery. 

While each tool may be different, there are a few steps you can take to guide the process.

Northwestern Learning Technology

Is the tool supported by Northwestern? Zoom, Panopto, Perusall, or Nebula are just a few of the learning tools that Northwestern University fully supports. If you’re looking to add one of these tools to your course, NUIT should have a page with information about the tool, including accessibility. If you’re still unsure about the accessibility of the product, reach out to NUIT for assistance.

Other Learning Technology

If the tool isn’t supported by Northwestern, your first step is to look for an accessibility statement on the product’s web page. An accessibility statement can take many forms: a paragraph or a page explaining the vendor’s plan for accessibility, an explanation of how accessibility is incorporated into the product, or a report detailing the accessibility of the product. If an accessibility statement isn’t available, that’s a red flag, though not an immediate rejection. You should reach out to the vendor to request accessibility information on the tool.

One of the things you may get from a learning technology vendor is a VPAT. VPAT stands for Voluntary Product Accessibility Template and is a tool that technology vendors can use to assess and report on the accessibility of their product. If you’ve never looked at a VPAT before, it can feel pretty overwhelming! Indiana University has created a guide for a quick review of a VPAT, which is a good place to start. Pay close attention to any accessibility items marked “Partially Supports” or “Does Not Support,” as those are areas where the product will have accessibility issues.

If you have access to the tool, you can also do some very basic hands-on testing! You don’t need to be an accessibility expert to check these things.

  1. Set your mouse aside and try to interact with the tool with your keyboard only. Use the tab key to jump from item to item and the enter key to interact with links, buttons, and more. Can you tell where you are on the screen? Can you activate menus and buttons?
  2. Check the color and contrast in the tool. Is color alone used to convey information, or is color combined with other features? Is there high contrast between colors? Can you easily read the text in the tool?
  3. If the tool uses audio, video, and/or images, it needs to have a way to include text equivalents, in the form of transcripts, captions, or alt text.

These tests aren’t the end-all, be-all of accessibility, but they’re a good place to start. If a tool passes these tests, it’s likely going to be fairly accessible to most users. And if it fails even these basic tests, then it will probably cause problems for disabled students.

Working with Inaccessible Resources

What do you do if you find a tool or resource you rely on is inaccessible? First, don’t panic. You have options!

If you’ve learned a course resource is inaccessible because a student made an accommodation request, be sure to work with both the student and AccessibleNU to find out what the problems are and how they were fixed. If the accommodation resulted in an accessible resource--such as a captioned video--you can utilize that accessible resource in future classes.

If the accommodation fix was temporary, or you discovered an accessibility issue while reviewing your content outside of teaching, you may have some additional work to do.

First, consider if you can find another, accessible resource. Is an article available as an accessible PDF, or a version of a video available with captions? Can you update an assessment that relied on an inaccessible website to use a site that is accessible?

If replacement isn’t an option, identify what aspects of the resource or tool are inaccessible and who might face challenges. Then consider how you’ll make sure that a disabled student will have equal access to the course. This could take many forms! Some examples:

  • Using the Canvas discussion boards for an assignment, instead of holding discussions on an external website that simulates a bulletin board with colored notes and strings.
  • Setting up a call with a student to read inaccessible text aloud to them.
  • Researching how to add a live captioner to a Zoom call.
You don’t have to navigate these questions alone. Reach out to AccessibleNU or a Digital Accessibility Liaison for help.