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April 30, 2015

Teaching@Pitt: Making online course material accessible


Imagine that you are a student with red/green color blindness, and your instructor has assigned homework that includes selected problems from a PDF document that you are to access online. Students have been asked to complete only the problems highlighted in red. Would you feel comfortable asking for help? Might the inability to see the highlighted questions keep you from completing the assignment?

The importance of ensuring that course materials are accessible to all students has gained more attention with the widespread use of course management systems, such as Pitt’s Blackboard, to disseminate content to students. As of fall 2014, 70 percent of Pitt’s instructors were using Blackboard in their teaching.

According to a 2011 survey conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), 707,000 students with disabilities were enrolled in postsecondary institutions in the 2008-09 academic year. Of those 707,000 learners, 4 percent reported difficulty hearing, 3 percent reported difficulty seeing, 7 percent reported mobility limitations, and 31 percent reported specific learning disabilities.

Clear communication of information to students is the primary function of any college course, and both the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 mandate that equitable accommodations be made for individuals with disabilities to access that knowledge. Furthermore, the University of Pittsburgh is committed to providing students with “an equal opportunity to access the courses, programs, services and activities” within the institution, as the Disability Resources website states. So how can instructors be certain that their course materials are universally available to all learners?

It is challenging to ensure that every conceivable need for each learner  is addressed, and attempting to make all content universally available can be distressing, time-consuming and difficult for faculty. The following steps can help mitigate some of the more common accessibility issues:

1. Integrate the University’s disability statement ( in syllabi. However, it also is valuable to tell students that you personally take the needs of your individual students into consideration. Know your students and make them aware of your dedication to accessibility. Ask students with special needs to make you aware of those needs as early as possible in the semester, so that you can plan to differentiate your instruction accordingly.

2. Consider how your documents will look online.

• Use fonts and formats that enhance accessibility. For example, when constructing documents, select sans serif fonts such as Arial or Helvetica.

• Avoid using color for organizational purposes. Instead, use clear headings and written language to explain your expectations.

• Use strong contrast between text and background colors.

• When creating new documents, use the headings that are built into Microsoft Word. Doing so will help those who use a screen reader, a software application that allows people with visual impairments to use computers.

3. To accommodate learners with hearing impairments, use video clips with built-in closed captioning. When closed captioning is not available, provide a transcript or notes of the content.

4. Ask questions and seek additional information if you are unsure of how to make something accessible. Adobe and Microsoft Office Suite provide online support for creating accessible documents. The websites for both platforms have useful checklists and how-to articles that provide clear instruction.

5. Finally, a one-on-one meeting with an instructional technologist at CIDDE can help you to address problems you may encounter.

Making accessible documents can be a confusing and difficult task. However, it is no less confusing and difficult for the many students with special needs to engage with non-accessible media. Prioritizing accessibility ensures that the expectations of the law and the University are met. More importantly, it evidences compassion for, dedication to, and consideration of our diverse student population at a time when using online course materials is becoming increasingly common.

Jessica Knab is the coordinator of CIDDE’s teaching support program.