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Accessibility Guide

Guide to creating accessible content (documents, web pages/sites, videos, etc.) for faculty and staff

Accessibility: Why It's Important

At the core, making sure that materials created for students, faculty, and/or staff are accessible is about fairness--making sure everyone and anyone, no matter what their challenges might be, can have full access to and benefit from whatever the content is.

However, many people falsely assume that only people who are blind and/or deaf need accessible content--and some also assume that there are few (if any) disabled students/faculty/staff in their college or university.  At points in the past, that belief might have been accurate, when people with disabilities either only went to schools with others like them (e.g. Gallaudet University for the deaf) or did not pursue higher education at all.

Advances in technology now mean that people with varying disabilities have more options for access to information, including in the realm of higher education, than ever before--but the technologies those people use (usually referred to as "assistive technology") can only take the person to a certain point if the content (books, documents, websites, videos) does not comply with established accessibility guidelines.  Like all technology, assistive technology can only work with the information it is provided--so if a blind student would try to use a screen reader to access a print document, that would obviously not work because print content is not compatible with the reader.

Making content accessible at the beginning, during creation, is the easiest and most efficient way to not only have accessible content available but to be prepared for having a student/faculty/staff member who needs accessible content.  It always takes more time and effort to convert non-accessible content, and for a student taking a course--time the student does not have access to the content could often affect their academic performance.

This page of the Accessibility Guide gives an introduction to the main types of disabilities that content creators need to be aware of, and it also includes a short list of the most basic ways content should be formatted to begin to address accessibility.  Other pages of this Guide list more specific ways to make distinct types of content, including file types, into accessible content.

Accessibility: Types of Disabilities

Although there are many different types of disabilities, the following 5 areas cover much of the disabilities of greatest impact to students/faculty/staff in higher education:

  • Visual
  • Hearing
  • Motor
  • Speech
  • Cognitive

Visual disabilities include not only people who are blind (zero vision) but those with low vision (limited visual field, blind spots, blurry vision not correctable by glasses) and those with color blindness (inability to tell the difference between certain colors).

Hearing disabilities include people who are completely deaf as well as those with varying degrees of hearing loss.

Motor disabilities include not only people who have lost limbs (e.g. loss of hand(s)) but those with motor impairments that cause tremors, weakness, and/or paralysis.

Speech disabilities include people who are unable to speak at all as well as those with speech impediments.

Cognitive disabilities include not only people with learning disabilities (e.g. dyslexia) but also people with autism, ADHD, and/or other processing problems which could include those due to injury (e.g. brain injuries).

Accessibility: Basic Concepts for All Content Types

The list below includes some of the most basic, as well as some of the easiest to implement, concepts and formatting directions for making content accessible. 

  • Contrast: Always use high contrast with any text or other visual content (e.g. charts or graphs).  Black on white generally always works, and it also easily allows for conversion to white text on black (which is easier to read for some who have vision impairments).
    • Although using multiple font colors, for example, might look appealing, if the colors are too light in comparison to the background color, that will make the overall effect more difficult to read for many users.
  • Color: Do not have any text or other visual content that is differentiated (e.g. indication of importance) primarily (or only) by color--that will make it more difficult (if not impossible) for those who are colorblind to tell what you are trying to indicate.
  • Blinking: Eliminate or limit blinking/flashing of content/text to 3 seconds.  In addition to being distracting to many users, blinking/flashing can cause seizures in people who are photosensitive.
  • Link Text: Link text, when included, should be descriptive of the link destination--instead of a word like "here," use "Central Penn homepage."
  • Lists: When including lists, use the content creator's built-in-tools (such as for numbers or bullets).  Not only does it make it clearer for all users to read, it will make it easier on those who use screen readers--which are designed to identify when items are formatted as parts of lists.
  • Images: All images should have descriptions of the image either in visible text (as a caption or otherwise directly above or below) or by using the alternative (alt) text tool in the content creator.  Even if an image is merely decorative, that information should be included in an "alt text" tag so that someone using a screen readers knows whether or not the image has important information.
    • This is especially important when the content of the image is text--e.g. embedded images of PowerPoint slides with text on them--that does not appear elsewhere on the page/document.
    • On the Paraphrasing page of the Academic Integrity Guide, there are formatted paragraphs of text that appear as images--but the text contained in those images is listed in the "alt text" attached to them.
    • For directions which include screenshots, there should be text describing what is in the screenshot--there should not be information only available to someone who can see the screenshot. (See Purchased Ebooks via Blackboard page for an example.)
  • Captions/Transcripts: Any video and/or audio content should have live captions (preferred for videos) and/or a transcript available of the narration.  This helps not only those who are hearing impaired but also anyone who is not a native speaker as well as those with cognitive impairments who might process the text better than the sound.
  • Organization: Clear, consistent organization will help all users, but it is especially helpful for those with many of the different disabilities listed.  Cognitive energy should not need to be expended on whether some text is a heading or not, or why videos or images are included, or in what order the user should read/experience the content.