Universal Design for Instruction: Accessibility

What does Accessibility refer to?

Accessibility is a characteristic of an environment – learning or otherwise – that measures its equitable opportunity (i.e., usability) for all individuals, regardless of disabilities. This can include but is not limited to individuals with both visible and "hidden" disabilities such as cognitive limitations, hearing loss, low vision, color blindness, impaired mobility, etc. When we refer the accessibility of a course, we are assessing whether or not a person with a disability can participate in the course (both contributing to and receiving the information and experiences) as equally and independently as a person without a disability. While accessibility efforts do not replace learning accommodations/modifications and other services, they naturally complement these personalized support solutions. 

When referring to the accessibility of a website or other digital medium, the WCAG 2.0 guidelines are a global standard. WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) have been developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative of W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and are designed around having content that is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. (www.w3.org/WAI/intro/people-use-web/principles) There are currently three levels of success criteria in meeting WCAG 2.0 requirements: levels A, AA, and AAA. Johns Hopkins University strives to meet level AA criteria. One example of over 30 criteria in levels A & AA is the condition that "If the technologies being used can achieve the visual presentation, text is used to convey information rather than images of text except for the following: [customizable and essential]." (WCAG 2.0, criteria 1.4.5.) Obviously, the criteria as stated can be overwhelming to any novice! So instead of memorizing a list of criteria and testing for compliance, CTL encourages everyone to practice good habits that lead to authoring accessible documents as a companion to other synchronous and asynchronous practices within Universal Design.


Why Worry about Accessibility?

The world is full of barriers. Concerning ourselves with accessibility removes many of those barriers and prevents new ones from being established. When delivering, designing or retrofitting a course in accordance with Accessibility Guidelines, the University is not only recognizing diversities and enhancing educational offerings, but also addressing legal concerns -- including those set forth by the American with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973's Section 504 and Section 508. Another motivator is that in addressing accessibility, education is made “better for all” and, as an aside, affords multiple learning styles and intelligences, plus other incidental advantages such as inclusivity of our community and sustainability of our resources.


What is Universal Design for Instruction and UDL?

Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) are approaches to designing teaching and learning that are both grounded in the engineering movement of Universal Design: “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Mace, R., 1988) Both UDI and UDL embrace the goal of this movement: to make a better environment for everyone.

There are nine principles of UDI: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, size and space for approach and use, a community of learners, and instructional climate. And there are three principles of UDL: multiple means of representation; multiple means of action and expression; and multiple means of engagement. These principles and their frameworks are closely related.  Learn more about UDI and UDL on our main Universal Design for Instruction and for Learning page.
The principles of UDI and UDL match with both the efforts and ethos of accessibility. Here are a some of the principles as they reflect to specific examples of accessible practices.
  • When creating a culture of accessibility in education, there are multiple representations of information which make for equitable use and perceptible information. For instance, something as simple as using alt-text when inserting an image in a document or website, or putting forth a bit more effort and using a long description attribute for a complex table or graphic, could help someone relying on a screen reader or someone with cognitive issues or a learning disability (documented or not). These individuals are better equipped to comprehend the material with this alternate path to the visual material. 
  • Multiple opportunities and ways for action/expression, which parallel the UDI principle of flexibility in use, are also considered when creating a culture of accessibility; no segment of the population is cut off with this approach. For instance, students' demonstration of comprehension via digital assessments shouldn’t require design elements (color, animations, etc.) that may hinder someone with visually-triggered neurological effects or low vision; alternative parameters or assessment types should be offered. Another example of flexibility would be considering the environment and abilities of all participants of a synchronous activity. For instance, a LiveTalk allows for text, audio, and video participation -- one which may work better than the others, based on everything from available bandwidth to limitations in manual dexterity (in which case participating via audio or video is probably better). The LiveTalk host should not only allow for all modes of participation, but strive to embrace them as part of a welcoming and inclusive instructional climate.
  • And lastly, multiple means of engagement are reached when offering the same content in varied formats as it extends to multiple learning intelligences. One example is the practice of using text transcripts alongside companion audio and video files. The transcripts are a boost to both the verbal/linguistic learner as well as necessary for someone with diminished hearing. Another accessibility practice that provides multiple means of engagement while also allowing for tolerance for error (accommodating students who arrive with different understandings or who learn at different paces) could be something as simple as "stating the geography" of a page or projected slide. This technique is done in conjunction with using a pointer in the face-to-face classroom or with a highlighter or other annotation in a digital platform: the presenter directs the audience to a certain feature or region of a visual (e.g., handout or PowerPoint slide) by actually using words to direct their focus and attention in addition to the pointer, highlighter, or other annotation.
When an educational platform and resources are created with UDL and UDI, there is built-in accommodation and flexibility for all participants. Also important, employing these practices results in a more sustainable and robust artifact and environment that is less likely to need retrofitting and/or rework in the future.


What are the Best Accessibility Online Practices for Faculty?

The platforms of the CoursePlus, Coursera, and OpenCourseWare (OCW) course sites are working toward meeting website Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). However, anything that is authored or edited by faculty and TAs should keep accessibility in mind. This includes the many digital resources that are linked, uploaded and/or edited on these sites. In addition, the third party applications used in a course should also be considered when thinking about accessibility principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. (See W3C’s “Understanding the Four Principles of Accessibility”.)

Before a course begins, provide your students a list of instructional technologies that will be used. In the CoursePlus Syllabus Builder, one of the Recommended sections is "Instructional Technologies that will be used". In this list of technologies, aim to provide a statement (or link to a statement) about any accessibility features for each. For instance, "VoiceThread provides a way to participate in VoiceThreads with screen readers and other assistive technologies using VoiceThread Universal. Users are encouraged to learn about all the accessibility features of VoiceThread on their support site." A list of accessibility links for JHSPH tools will help you with these statements: Accessibility Statements for JHSPH Instructional Technologies beyond CoursePlus.

Asynchronous Practices

As Johns Hopkins University moves toward developing an official policy on accessibility, a companion checklist has been developed for meeting the guidelines for MS Office and PDF Documents. For the basic practices that go toward making accessible materials (beyond web pages), please see our guidelines on "Authoring Universally Accessible Materials."

PowerPoint files are most often used in recorded lectures. As such, CTL has put together a Best Practices Checklist for PowerPoint that goes along with our Steps for Creating a Sustainable and Powerful Presentation.  The document, 5 Tips for Using CTL's PowerPoint Template, is a good starting point for getting started with the JHSPH Powerpoint template.

A bit more detail on the recommendations is provided in CTL's summarized guidelines for non-HTML documents (PDF, Word, and PowerPoint). Of course, Adobe and Microsoft both provide their own guidelines with more specific instructions. Adobe’s Help website has a very good tutorial on “Create and Verify PDF Accessibility” that is applicable to the most up-to-date version of Acrobat. Microsoft also has its own videos and written tutorials for making accessible documents. The MS video for creating an accessible Word document presents the same content as their written tutorial, following the guidelines for Section 508 (which have goals similar to the WCAG success criteria). You can also search Office Help for their guidelines for making accessible Excel Workbooks and PowerPoint presentations. In addition, we have put together a concise accessibility recommendations guideline for basic (HTML) website content based off the WebAIM’s WCAG 2.0 checklist and the WCAG 2.0 W3C Recommendation.

When it comes to third party applications, such as VoiceThread, it’s important to know that while you might not be able to verify the accessibility compliance, you might want to attempt modifying or adapting any information relayed through these add-ons. For VoiceThread, this could range from uploading closed captions or exporting the video and allowing CTL to send it for transcription. At the very least, try to point students to the accessibility statements and/or features of the tool (see Accessibility Statements for JHSPH beyond CoursePlus). In as much as it is possible, all students should be given the same content and the same learning opportunities and participation experiences in lecture, discussion, activity, review and assessment.

Synchronous Practices

For online communication and collaboration that happens in “real time”, such as instant messaging or chat rooms and video conferencing, there are an entirely different set of barriers that are removed when employing best practices. Many of these barriers will be alleviated by the well-designed tool that makes the synchronous communication possible. This includes a simplified user interface, real-time text transcription and its counterpart of speech-to-text, using a specific graphic interface for “whiteboard” activity that translates well across different platforms, and much more. (The IMS Global Learning Consortium's Guidelines for Developing Accessible Learning Materials has devoted a nicely summarized section on Developing Accessible Synchronous Communication and Collaboration Tools.)

But what responsibility falls to the participants using these tools? Faculty and students participating in synchronous communication need to be inclusive in making small but mighty efforts in their communication. It's important that faculty model the behaviors they expect of their students and guest presenters. These efforts will build a welcoming community for everyone including some users who may be limited by the fast pace of communication, by low or no vision, by impaired or no hearing, or more.

What are the Best Lecture Delivery (Recorded & Face-to-Face) Practices for Accessibility?

In learning about Universal Design for Instruction, you will understand that by applying the principles of universal design (equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, & size and space for approach and use) to all facets of education, you are providing the largest possible opportunity to the largest possible segment of the population. Continuing in this approach of universal design beyond the obvious "accessible document" or "accessible digital platform", which have specific guidelines and success criteria, to making your lectures and presentations more inclusive is a practice that reduces potential barriers, meets individuals' needs, and is beneficial for everyone.

While there aren’t a set of specific success criteria nor any set compliance characteristics for lecture delivery, we can transfer some of the principles of UDL and WCAG – specifically, employing multiple means of engagement and representation along with making communications perceivable and understandable – to lecture delivery. Keeping in mind what we mean when we refer to accessibility (that it is a characteristic of an environment that measures its equitable opportunity for all individuals, regardless of disabilities), the lecturer should consider potential limitations (physical, neurological, and even digital) of their audience. These potential barriers could arise in the physical (classroom) environment or digital platform, the distributed learning materials, and the actual learning activities. And while the University will provide accommodations for qualified individuals, you should keep in mind that by making our environments more accessible, we don't make it “better for some” but rather “better for all”

To help our faculty's awareness of inclusivity in delivering their lectures, we have developed a list of best practices. You will see that most of these items are a subset of our "Synchronous Best Practices Checklist" (linked in the previous section). In addition to these UDI best practices, we also have other lecture tips for preparation, delivery, and reflection.


CTL Video Series: Overview of Accessibility in UDI

The full video series for an Overview of Accessibility in UDI has been moved to its own page. It contains the videos linked earlier on the current page along with others which make up a comprehensive presentation on an Introduction to Accessibility in UDI. Click here to proceed to the Video Series: Overview of Accessibility in UDI.


Additional Resources & References

Learn how you can embrace positive habits on our Authoring Universally Accessible Materials page. In addition, to learn more about Universal Design for Instruction and Learning and Accessibility, you're encouraged to visit the following:
  • 7 Things You Should Know about Universal Design for Learning from the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI).

  • Access MOOC
    Accessibility: Designing and Teaching Courses for All Learners is a free self-paced professional development course that will help you gain a better understanding of accessibility as a civil rights issue and develop the knowledge and skills you need to design learning experiences that promote inclusive learning environments. SUNY Empire State College and SUNY Buffalo State College designed this course to be completed in entirety by working approximately 3 hours a week for 6 weeks. However, this version is self-paced and allows you to complete only the portions you want.

  • Accessibility 101 - an open course from Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges with modules on Accessibility Basics, MS Office techniques for creating accessible materials, and Making Accessible Online Content.

  • Accessibility for Online Course Content
    A guide for instructors from Portland Community College. It includes step-by-step guides for creating accessible content in Powerpoint, Word, PDF, Google Docs, and other applications. 

  • Adobe Reader Accessibility
    Adobe Acrobat Reader is a free software download and contains features that are compatible with Windows & Mac operating systems' accessibility functions. Read more about Adobe's Reader and download it from their site in order to open and read PDF documents.

  • Applications of Universal Design in Postsecondary Education
    This is a collection of DO•IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) resources that include specific accessibility applications for curriculum & instruction, technology (including online course components), and even the design of physical learning spaces.

  • Assistive Technology (AT) Demonstration Videos 
    This YouTube playlist, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense's Computer/Electronics Accommodations Program (CAP), includes several videos that demonstrate various AT. The CAP website has a more comprehensive collection of AT demonstration videos, highlighting how these technologies can help individuals in the workforce. (However, at the time of this edit, the videos on the CAP website were all *.wmv formatted, requiring Windows Media Player for playback.)

  • Color Contrast Checker
    This contrast checker tool allows you to enter RGB color values (used by Microsoft programs) as well as hexadecimal values. The color contrast ratio to meet WCAG 2.0 AA compliance is 4.5:1. This tool includes pass/fail feedback after you've entered your foreground and background colors.

  • Creating Accessible Lectures
    Strategies from the University of Oxford that go toward face-to-face lectures but also includes some tips for resources that could be distributed as hand-outs or online.

  • Guide to Creating Accessible Electronic Materials
    This guide from George Mason University is excellent and comprehensive!
  • How to Meet WCAG 2.0
    A checklist provided by W3C that allows the user to filter Web Content Accessibility Guidelines by Technologies (e.g., document types) and Levels of success criteria (A, AA, and AAA).
  • IMS Guidelines for Developing Accessible Learning Applications
    The IMS Global Learning Consortium is a nonprofit organization "that strives to enable the adoption and impact of innovative learning technology." This white paper was developed as a guideline to developing products and services in compliance with their criteria that are complementary to most accessibility guidelines.

  • JHSPH PowerPoint Template
    This is the most up-to-date PowerPoint template from CTL. We advise that all online lectures be developed using this template which, when used appropriately, leads to a universally accessible document that will (a) be ready for face-to-face use in addition to online; (b) produce an accessible PDF of the presentation for students to download from CoursePlus; and (c) be ready for submission to conferences or other instances where accessibility needs to be considered. For guidance on using this template to make an accessible document, please refer to the Sample PowerPoint (below) and the document, 5 Tips for Using CTL's PowerPoint Template. You can also talk to your instructional designer and refer to the section on Asynchronous Best Practices (above) for further details.

  • Myths of Web Accessibility
    A Penn State document on some common misconceptions about accessibility matters.

  • Sample JHSPH CTL Accessible PowerPoint with Instructions
    A completed PowerPoint using the JHSPH lecture template, passing all accessibility requirements and recommendations. This file can be downloaded and its simple instructions can be followed to create a new, accessible presentation. Optionally, the blank template file can be downloaded to start a new file from scratch. Please consider looking at the 5 Tips for Using CTL's PowerPoint Template document to help you get started.

  • Target Audiences for Accessibility Concerns
    Another Penn State resource, this website introduces the visitor to different scenarios (audiences) who might benefit by the accessibility design.

  • UDI: Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples
    The Washington State University's DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center explains Universal Design for Instruction in Postsecondary Education.

  • UDI Online Project
    The University of Connecticut's website (funded by the U.S. Department of Education) that serves as a professional development clearance center for teaching faculty about Universal Design for Instruction, focusing on implementing digital tools for planning, course delivery, and assessment that meet UDI. The site contains an e-Toolbox that provides digital tools and instructional modules "that faculty can use in the planning, delivery, and assessment of student learning in online and technology blended courses."

  • UDL Guidelines
    The current set of guidelines from the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, at CAST (2012).

  • UDL Series
    A series of "web-based rich media presentations and resources to increase understanding of the UDL framework, enhance utilization of UDL tools, processes, and resources, support effective UDL implementation, and inform UDL advocates, families, and communities about professional development and policy initiatives" from the National Center on Universal Design for Learning.
  • UDL On Campus
    The “Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education” site is maintained by CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology), a leading nonprofit R&D organization whose mission is “to work tirelessly to understand the full extent of human learner variability and to find transformative approaches that make education more effective for all.” The website provides a comprehensive overview of UDL, including examples in higher ed, resources on making a UDL syllabus, including UDL in assessment, including UDL in blended courses, and more.

  • Understanding Universal Design in the Classroom
    This NEA site provides suggestions for implementing UDI, broken down by each of the nine principles.

  • Universal Design for Learning: Building on Accessibility
    This download from CAST is a MS Word document that provides an overview of UDL, including the UDL graphic organizers.

  • Universal Design in Higher Education – From Principles to Practice
    The second edition (pub. Sept 2015) includes recent legal issues for universities, case studies, and applications of UDI & UDL.

  • WCAG 2 at a Glance
    A summary of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 provided by W3C.

  • WebAIM's WCAG 2.0 Checklist



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