Bohemian waxwings sitting in a chokecherry tree.


Make your course work for everyone.

Accessibility is defined by Microsoft in their Inclusive Design Manual as “the qualities that make an experience open to all.” The IMS Global Learning Consortium defines it as “the ability of the learning environment to adjust to the needs of all learners.”

It’s a good place to start when considering what you can do to make your course accessible to all learners, because it puts the focus on what you have control over — the “environment’ of your online classroom.

Accessibility at UAF: Shared Responsibility

UAF CTL works with faculty and Disability Services to ensure that online courses are accessible. For a detailed overview of how these responsibilities are shared, see the following graphic. A fully accessible PDF version of the table in the graphic is also available.

Instructors, CTL, and Disability Services work collaboratively to:

  • Design online courses using principles of Universal Design for Learning.
  • Test the accessibility of software used in online courses.
  • Provide resources to improve the accessibility of online courses.
  • Implement accessible accomodations when barriers are found.
Instructor Responsibilities

Proactive Responsibilities

  • Organize course content clearly and consistently.
  • Follow standard accessibility guidelines for creating course documents.
  • Make use of searchable and tagged PDFs.
  • Include captions or transcripts for instructor-created video.
  • Check accessibility of required course software, publisher materials, and linked multimedia.
  • Include a well-written syllabus statement on disability accommodations.
  • Encourage students to contact Disability Services directly to ensure that they receive approved accommodations for all of their courses.
CTL: Responsibilities

Proactive Responsibilities

  • Research new tools and methods that aid in Universal Design.
  • Review courses for accessibility and provide guidance.
  • Train faculty on designing courses for accessibility.
  • Create open training resources on CTL
  • Use Universal Design for Learning in templates provided.
  • Provide accurate captioning and transcription for media content.
  • Encourage well-written learning in course design.
  • Innovate based on emerging trends in online accessibility.
  • Advocate for the importance of accessibility as a benefit to all persons.
  • Work with other UAF and UA units toward improved accessibility.
Disability Services: Responsibilities

Proactive Responsibilities

  • Identify potential barriers to students with disabilities.
  • Remove or reduce barriers while maintaining learning objectives.
  • Provide training and one-on-one consultations.
  • Increase awareness of the disability experience campus-wide.
  • Promote services and resources to campus and community.
  • Collaborate with departments and organizations to host events.
  • Research and provide access to tools that improve access for students.
  • Research and maintain assistive technology for loan.
  • Maintain awareness of disability law in higher education.
  • Administer proctored exams in a distraction-reduced environment.

How Does Accessibility Apply to My Course?

Issues of accessibility can be approached from a few different directions. Traditionally, the process of making course materials accessible was a reactive one, with requests being met as they were made. This addressed the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974, the two most important laws governing accessibility of educational materials.

There are some problems with this. It puts the instructor in a position of having to respond, sometimes last-minute, to a request for accommodation. And it places a burden of advocacy on students with disabilities. Not every student with a disability will voice that disability or advocate for their needs.

The percentage of undergraduate students in the United States with disabilities is 11%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (2016). However the percentage of UAF students who reported disabilities through Disability Services and received official letters of accommodation was only 2.4% for the 2018-19 academic year.

Students will arrive in your course with all manner of impairments, some declared with an official request for accommodations through Disability Services, some undeclared. They will also have a range of assistive technology to help them access your course. Every individual will be different, and the mix of students will change from semester to semester. It can be hard to know where to start! Focus proactively on identifying common barriers in your course content, and work to improve them incrementally.

Ignoring the accessibility of ones course is also a missed opportunity. Providing accessible materials benefits all learners, even those without disabilities. By providing multiple means of access, such as captions, searchable PDFs, and modifiable text size and color, course materials can be improved and broadened for the benefit of all. A 2016 study by Oregon State University found that 71% of students without hearing difficulties used captions at least some of the time, and 98% of students found captions helpful (Linder, 2016).

UAF CTL takes a proactive approach to accessibility, building it in to the course design process, rather than tacking it on later. Working from a Universal Design framework, instructional designers create learning materials to be accessible from the ground up. By employing tools such as machine and human captioning services for media content, the Ally tool within Canvas for course document conversion, and Grackle Docs for creating accessible documents and PDFs, materials can be born accessible and an accommodation request later on can be met with a simple reply: “Yes, my course is accessible.’

For more information on resources available at UAF and through CTL, see the CTL page on Accessibility Resources. And our series of accessibility focused teaching tips cover captioning, perspectives of UAF instructors, specific tools, Universal Design, and more.

Expanding Awareness

Understanding the perspectives and experiences of people with disabilities and users of assistive technology is best learned by hearing from those people themselves. Many of us do not directly know enough people with disabilities to do this ourselves. Below are a suggested viewing list of short films, documentaries, and video clips that feature a range of individuals with disabilities addressing their lived experiences as students, as users of technology and as members of society.

Models of Disability

Both definitions of accessibility used at the top of this page rely on what is called the “social model of disability.” This model is in contrast to the more traditional medical model of disability which viewed impairments as disabling in themselves. In the social model, the disability is not the impairment itself, but the result of the impairment within society. Hence, disability is defined as the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in society on an equal level with others due to social and environmental barriers (Martin, 2017).

The social model recognizes the range of impairments that could lead to someone being disabled by an environment. For example, if you have an adult learner in your class who has a hard time reading small print, and you include low-quality scanned PDFs in your course material, you have, in effect, created a situation that disables your student.

Applying the social model to a classroom environment, the following is useful:

Impairment + Environment = Disability

Impairment + Accessible Environment = Inclusion

Using this framework, and the definitions above, CTL strives to improve the learning environments of online courses, proactively.

Hand in hand with a theoretical approach to accessibility is our responsibility as publicly funded institution of higher education to comply with federal and state law regarding accommodations for people with disabilities.

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