The goal of good design should be not only to try to meet mandated guidelines (although those are very necessary for some users), but also to create a course that allows all learners to be able to learn equally.

To get a sense of how students with visual impairments may interact with course content, watch this seven-minute "Introduction to Screen Readers" video produced by DoIT:

In today's educational settings, the mix of students is more diverse than ever. Instructors are challenged to teach all kinds of learners. A single course may include students who struggle to learn for any number of reasons, such as:

Screen readers such as the one shown in the video are commonly used by students with milder visual impairments or learning disabilities that make it necessary for them to hear information they need to process. The video demonstrates both how useful well-constructed resources can be for students using screen readers and how potentially limiting poorly-constructed resources can be. Similar opportunities exist to make audio materials more accessible through transcriptions and captioning.

Resources that someone with low vision can read are easier for everyone to read. Easy-to-click buttons and links that someone with fine motor difficulties from arthritis or who is older are easier to to use for everyone.

In addition, university, state, and federal policies all require that instructional content be accessible to all students. In the online environment, instructors can make a major impact on the accessibility of their courses through simple changes in how they create and distribute documents.

Suggested Accessibility Guidelines

University of WisconsinMadison Information Technology provides a variety of resources for developing accessible content.

Following are just a few general guidelines that can make a significant difference in the accessibility of materials.

  1. Use templates provided by campus course management systems such as Canvas. The developers creating these templates have set them up to have an accessible framework.
  2. Carefully follow directions in campus course or content management systems and include all requested information, such as image descriptions.
  3. Save and use original digital documents rather than scanning print-outs whenever possible.

General Standard 8: Accessibility and Usability

Standard 8(Click link above to view Annotated QM Rubric, Standard 8 begins at the bottom of page 24.)


The course design reflects a commitment to accessibility, so that all learners can access all course content and activities, and to usability, so that all learners can easily navigate and interact with course components.


The Accessibility and Usability standard deals with the importance of designing online courses that are accessible and usable for all learners, including learners with hearing or sight impairments. Accessibility and usability are very closely related. Accessibility is about making sure learners with disabilities have the same experience in a course as everyone else. Usability is about designing the course so it is easy for all learners to accomplish the tasks needed to be successful. Your goal should be to ensure all learners have a quality learning experience.


The following Quality Matters™ standards provide a good checklist for course accessibility and usability:


8.1 Course navigation facilitates ease of use.

8.2 Information is provided about the accessibility of all technologies required in the course.

8.3 The course provides alternative means of access to course materials in formats that meet the needs of diverse learners.

8.4 The course design facilitates readability.

8.5 Course multimedia facilitate ease of use.

Universal Design for Online Learning

You may have heard of Universal Design. This is an approach to designing all products and environments to be usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible, regardless of age, ability, or situation. Universal design benefits everyone by accommodating limitations.


While accessibility is part of Universal Design, the concept of accessibility is focused on compensating for disability, while the concept of Universal Design is focused on designing for the widest variety of users. Designing for a wide range of users from the beginning of the building process can increase usability without significantly increasing the time it takes to build.


The results benefit everyone and reduce later modifications when students, instructors, or content change.

Universal design for online learning seeks to provide:

To learn more, see Universal Design Education.


Optional Resources:

Create Accessible Word Documents

Optional Resources:

Reference: Microsoft guide to Creating Accessible Word Documents

Tip: For online courses, consider that your students may need to access content while traveling or in brief periods away from a reliable Internet connection. When possible, make course content downloadable for offline viewing.

Create Accessible PowerPoint Slides

Reference: Microsoft guide to Creating Accessible PowerPoint Presentations

Create Accessible Audio & Video

Search Accessibility Standards for All Types of Media

Get Help from Campus Partners

The McBurney Disability Resource Center supports instructors in ensuring their course materials are accessible to all students.

Optional Resources:


Importance of ADA compliance

Julie Thurlow, Department of Nutritional Sciences, explains why and how her course materials were made ADA compliant.


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