Accessibility in Your Course

Accessibility in your course

Table of Contents

Accessibility touches every part of the course design and requires some additional planning and work. So why do we need to be proactive about it? Why does it matter at all?

Accessibility is a vital component of every piece of a course. All students, regardless of background or ability, should have equal access to education. Accessibility differs from accommodation in that accessibility is pro-active, while accommodations are reactive. Sometimes, accommodations are the best option; but many things can be made accessible in advance, making coursework smoother and more manageable.

Some of our students may not be aware of the available support, but for the majority of students, they do not disclose because they want “the opportunity to allow intellect, skill, and character to become their observed identity, rather than their disability” (Verdinelli & Kutner, 2016). As a result, it is crucially essential to design our courses for accessibility from the beginning, so that all students can engage with the course materials. Students should not be forced to choose between maintaining their privacy and passing a class. Building an accessible course allows them to do both.

Begin with these eight steps

Accessible courses and course content require a little more planning and work upfront. The steps below can help you get started in making your digital course materials accessible, more inclusive, and in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (see Legal Background section). The course website for your online, blended, or face-to-face course is as accessible as its sum:

When you build your course with both Universal Design and Quality Matters in mind, you create a learning experience that provides students with options for engaging their affective networks, recognizing information through representations, and strategically acting upon or expressing their learning. You are designing a course that provides learners with multiple means of moving from novice to expert.

These factors apply to anything you include in your online course to help make it more accessible to all learners.

Use the checklist CELT’s Universal Design Checklist for Your Online Course (PDF) and visit CELT’s Universal Design for Learning Overview page

  1. Student Support
  2. Software – Check the accessibility of all tools and software used in the course.
    • Inform students of system requirements, privacy policies, and accessibility.
  3. Web Pages – Check Canvas content with the Canvas accessibility checker.
  4. Web Links and Text – Check that all your links are up to date and have descriptive text
  5. Images – In addition to checking that all images have alt text and proper color contrast:
  6. Videos – All videos and audio should have correct captions or transcripts
  7. Files & Documents – you should check all files and documents for accessibility
  8. Math – All math equations and formulas should have alt text or MathML representations
  9. Alternative Formats – A separate accessible version of content should be made available when there is no other way to make it accessible
  10. Assignments & Quizzes – All assignments and online activities should have clear expectations to help students understand how to do them and why they are doing them
  11. Student View – Check the course in student view for broken or inaccessible functionality
  12. Check whether content is mobile-friendly. Students may be doing a lot on their phones/tablets. An easy way to see how any digital content will look on a phone is first to check it on your own phone.  Check the course for usability in the Canvas Student app.
  1. Modules – Use the modules page as the primary place where you build and organize your course. Think of it as the table of contents or outline or to-do list for your course.  If you have a reading or assignment or discussion for a particular week or unit, add it to the module for that week or unit.  This way, everything associated with that week or unit will be more visible to you and your students.  You can see in a glance if something is not available or unpublished that shouldn’t be, or if a requirement was not set, and so forth.  See How do I add a module?  and How do I add assignment types, pages, and files as module items?
  2. Don’t Copy & Paste – Don’t copy from other courses or websites or documents into Canvas.  If you do, the text will copy over just fine (although it may mess up the text styles and fonts), but images will not copy over like they would when copying and pasting into a Word document.  Images have to be downloaded from the other site (right click on the image and choose ‘save image as’), and then you can upload and insert the image into Canvas, entering alt text when doing so.  When copying content from another Canvas course, use the course import tool to ensure all images and links are fixed.  Use the link validator to check for any broken images or links.
  3. Images – When inserting an image, always remember to set the alt text with a description of what is in the image for screen readers.  If you want to embed a very large image, reduce its file size with a photo editor first. See: How do I embed images from Canvas into the Rich Content Editor?
  4. Tables – Minimize your use of tables, but when you do use them, set a caption and header row or column in the table properties. Do not set the width of a table or table cell to a fixed value, use percentages instead.  Reduce the number of columns for readability on mobile devices.  See How do I insert a table using the Rich Content Editor?
  5. Text Color – You should not use color or font size alone to distinguish text or convey importance. Use headers. See How do I add and modify text in the Rich Content Editor?   Check that color contrast is sufficient using this Color Contrast Checker from WebAIM.
  6. Videos – Speak clearly when recording videos and audio so that automatic captions will be more accurate and save you time with making any corrections. Additionally, consider using a script to provide focus to your video (to help with captioning, the script can be uploaded to the video platform).
    1. Check that in the Canvas Student app the video can play full-screen.
    2. For Studio in Canvas, you can seamlessly embed the video into your course
    3. On YouTube, click the share button to copy the embed code for a video and then insert the embed code in your page.
  7. Documents – Use the Accessibility Checker when creating Microsoft Office documents.
  8. Math – Use the Canvas Math Editor or WIRIS app to insert equations and formulas.
  9. Assignments – Use rubrics and transparent assignment templates and techniques.
It is an instructor’s responsibility to provide approved accommodations for students who present accommodation letters from the Office of Student Accessibility Services. Follow the documentation from Student Accessibility Services along with guidance on the SAS Faculty and Staff Resources page. If you have questions, contact: Student Accessibility Services 1076 Student Services Building 2505 Union Dr Ames, IA 50011-2030 email: phone: 515-294-7220

Develop a backup plan

Students with a range of abilities should be able to participate in whatever learning experiences you design for your course. Recognize that inaccessible apps and technologies will make their way into classrooms. So, think about a backup plan; how will a student with a disability have an equivalent experience if they can’t use that app? Brainstorm with ISU staff to develop your backup plan:

Share the accessibility statement with your students throughout the semester (e.g., first day of class, prior to exams, project deadlines). This is important because you may have students who did not ask for accommodations at the start of your course (or if you shifted from face-to-face to a fully online environment).

Then, encourage those students (who believe they have a current and essential need for disability related accommodations) to communicate (as needed) with Student Accessibility Services (SAS). SAS may be able assist students who require reasonable accommodations (e.g., access to alternative media, assistive technology). 

Student Accessibility Services website
1076 Student Services Building
2505 Union Dr Ames, IA 50011-2030
phone: 515-294-7220

(Note: This step is significantly important if your course shifted quickly from face-to-face to an online environment)

Even if they have access to a computer and stable internet, students may be sharing that computer with others, have limitations on data and bandwidth, or be in a very different time zone than you, so consider taking steps to make things easier for them.

  • Mix synchronous and asynchronous: Requiring all students to attend a synchronous lecture/discussion is likely to create challenges for at least some students. Recorded videos not only give students more flexibility about when and where they watch but they can be downloaded and watched offline. However, going completely asynchronous can mean weakening important interpersonal connections (see Be Relational discussion) so using some mix of the two may provide the best compromise.
  • Ask students what they have and know, as well as what they need. Use a check-in survey about needs, challenges, and concerns (e.g., devices, wifi access, etc.) Learn more from this Check-in Survey page.
  • If you’re doing asynchronous lecture/discussion, consider audio-only (podcast) recordings to go with annotated slides instead of a full video recording.
  • See additional suggestions from Pedagogy Playground
  • See Be Flexible section for more guidance

ISU Training opportunities

  • CELT’s Course Design Institute. A four-day event full of interactive, hands-on and collaborative activities to give ISU’s instructors skills, time and space for designing or substantially revising their courses. To find out more, visit CELT’s Course Design Institute page.
  • Quality Matters (QM). Looking to improve the quality of your online course design? Need help transitioning to online instruction? Interested in learning how QM Rubrics apply to course design and improvement? Get started with CELT’s QM Workshops.
  • ISU Online Learning Community (ISU-OLC). The purpose of this topic-based teaching and learning community is to share campus best practices to improve online teaching and learning; see how others are using Canvas. Upcoming dates are available on the ISU-OLC webpage.

Self-guided tutorials (free)

  • Quality Matters (QM) Accessibility and Usability Resource. This resource reflects QM’s commitment to online and blended course design for all learners and includes useful information on all aspects of accessibility, from the basics to concrete examples of course content and activities that can be easily navigated and interacted with by all users. To learn how to access this  resource, follow the steps on CELT’s Quality Matters (QM) Accessibility and Usability Resource webpage
  • Teach Access Tutorial. If you are new to accessibility, you’ve come to the right place – the tutorial will help you get up and running on accessibility via hands-on exercises and useful reference guides. Begin your training using the Teach Access Tutorial page.
It’s beneficial to be thinking about these things during the planning stage of your course, but you can also apply these concepts and best practices during a course redesign. Consider using these Iowa State University resources for help with your course or questions about accessibility:
024-remote access

Guidance on how to use Canvas in setting up reasonable accommodations.


Consider multiple ways to teach and deliver content, have students demonstrate their knowledge, and engage with other students.

Supports students with disabilities related to the services and programs that enable their access to education and university life.

Self-Paced Training for Digital Accessibility

CELT’s 10 tips to Improve Accessibility in your Canvas Course webinar

Identify tools and strategies to create an inclusive Canvas learning environment for all students. Learn to proactively develop course content that is accessible for students with disabilities, assistive technology friendly, and easily navigated by all learners.

You can review the video of this webinar on our website or review both the webinar and the PowerPoint in full.

View the condensed version of the workshop in this CELT’s 10 tips to Improve Accessibility in your Canvas Course video (24m 10s).

20-Minute Mentor Commons, a digital library of online seminars

Use the 20-Minute Mentor Commons for ISU page to register and log into Magna Commons. Then, access the CELT curated 20-Minute Mentor videos to guide the course delivery mode of Hybrid/Blended Learning using the hyperlinked list below:

LinkedIn Learning

Digital Accessibility: Learning Path in LinkedIn Learning (access through Okta Dashboard). This path was curated by our colleague Cyndi Wiley, Digital Accessibility Coordinator, Iowa State University. For technical assistance with LinkedIn Learning, please contact Learning and Development at

Host an Accessibility or Quality Matters workshop

CELT has presented our accessibility and Universal Design for Learning workshops at the Des Moines Area Community College Teaching Conference, The National Teaching Professor Conference, and the International Society for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL).

CELT has two staff members certified by Quality Matters (QM) to facilitate QM workshops at ISU.

If you are interested in hosting one of these workshops for your departmental or college faculty email

Stay informed about accessibility

CELT collaborates with campus partners to provide resources for our teaching community and students. Bookmark this page as a resource or RSS feed, resource subscription option Subscribe in a reader.

Legal Background

Currently, there are federal statutes or regulations explicitly governing web accessibility. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and a variety of lawsuits, rulings, and Office of Civil Rights memos have combined to form the legal foundation of web accessibility. This legal foundation outlines the broad requirements that higher education institutions must meet to comply with the ADA.

These requirements include:

  • Students with disabilities must have “the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services… with substantially equivalent ease of use” as non-disabled students (Case Western University Settlement Agreement, 2009)
  • Auxiliary aids and services for students with disabilities, such as captions, alt-text, etc., must be provided in accessible formats to protect the students’ privacy and independence, and promptly (which, in a digital environment, generally means immediately). (ADA Regulatory Amendments, 2010)
  • Communication, such as a transmission of information via the internet, with students with disabilities, must be as effective as communications with non-disabled students. (ADA Title II)
  • The majority of rulings and memos refer to the WCAG 2.0 standards as the ideal guidelines for higher education institutions to rely upon when discussing web accessibility. In January 2018, Section 508 updated to require that all U.S. Federal information and communication technology must meet the WCAG 2.0 A/AA standards.

To summarize, these various legal rulings and amendments require that higher education institutions ensure that disabled students have functionally the same access as non-disabled students. Failure to adhere to this requirement can leave a university open to future legal action, either from the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, or a private individual or organization.


Student Accessibility Services, email

Office of Equal Opportunity, email

Digital Access at ISU

Verdinelli, S., & Kutner, D. (2016). Persistence Factors Among Online Graduate Students With Disabilities. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(4), 353-368.

Accessibility in your course, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. Portions of this work, Accessibility in your course, is a derivative of Why is Web Accessibility Important? developed by Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies (retrieved on July 17, 2020) from