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Accessible course design means designing your D2L course so that all students, including those with disabilities, can access the material and participate in it successfully. Students with disabilities may use special browsers or software to interact with your D2L course. Screen readers, for example, read the contents of a Web page or document aloud. If your course is accessibly designed, disabled students can use their software to interact with the material.

Accessible course design is part of a larger educational commitment to equal opportunity for the disabled. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act lay out federal laws designed to protect the rights of the disabled in higher education. To help you with specifics, the MSU Disability, Re-Entry and Veteran Services Office maintains an Information for Faculty page describing how you can best accommodate identified students with disabilities.

However, you cannot wait until MSU identifies a student in your class as disabled before making your D2L course accessible. Much as buildings need to be accessible before the wheelchair-bound approach the doors, your course needs to be accessible before the disabled student registers. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines(WCAG) 2.0 and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act provide the standards for keeping the doors to your course information open to all. Most recent high profile lawsuits against universities have focused on the WCAG 2.0.

If you're thinking you could never learn all these laws and standards without applying for a sabbatical, please take heart. If you've read this far in the article, you probably care about doing the right thing and creating equal opportunity for all. However, you may also feel unsure about where to start and feel harried by grant deadlines, pressure to publish, and advisees who want appointments. The steps below should help you get started without burning you out.

  1. Know the Advantages

Web accessibility is not simply about preventing lawsuits. By taking steps towards making your online materials accessible, you are helping create an environment of civic inclusiveness.

Accessible course design, however, does more than help the permanently blind and deaf. It helps the student who is temporarily disabled with a broken arm. It helps students with slow internet connections download materials faster. It also makes your course easier to use on the beloved mobile platform. Ultimately, it helps all students simply because the markup involved in accessible course design makes material easier to read.

  1. Build Accessibility into Your Workflow

You probably would not write a paper based on a personal hypothesis and then do your research afterwards. You would have to change way too much! Accessible design works a little the same way. If you do it after you have made your course, there will be way too much to change. You will end up spending more time fixing the course after the fact than you would have if you had built accessibility into your workflow.

Plan to make the pieces of your course accessible as you develop them. You will save time and be much more likely to make your course more and more accessible.

  1. Baby Steps

Trying to incorporate all the standards (or even all the tips below) at once would be exhausting. It may help to not look at accessibility as either/or. Instead, think of it as a process that continually seeks ways to make online materials more and more accessible.

Caring, humility, and commitment to continual improvement will go a long way on your journey to accessible course design. Plan on incorporating one or two of the tips below into your course design workflow this semester. Incorporating just one or two tips can vastly improve accessibility. Then next semester try adding more.

  1. Use D2L Accessible Templates

Brightspace by D2L reports that it is committed to accessibility. It publishes the accessible features of the D2L learning environment in the Learning Environment Section 508 Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT)(PDF). However, as an instructor, you can render your course less accessible with the content you add. If your content does not use accessible HTML markup, D2L cannot compensate.

Learning proper HTML markup so that screen readers and other software can deliver content to the disabled is possible, but time consuming. For the sake of productivity (and your sanity), use D2L accessible templates. They not only automatically include accessible markup, but they also look professional in conventional browsers.

  1. Tend to PDF and Word Documents

It is so easy to make a handout for a face-to-face class and then upload it to D2L as a PDF or Word document. Unfortunately, screen readers cannot read most PDFs and Word documents. It takes special steps to make them accessible.

For Word, use styles and provide special descriptions of any images to help screen readers along.

Learn how to make Microsoft Word documents accessible.

For PDFs, export from accessible Word documents or create tags" through Adobe Acrobat.

Learn how to make PDFs accessible.

MSU faculty can obtain a free license of Adobe Acrobat for university-owned computers.

  1. Optimize Images

The visually impaired cannot see the images you use in your course content. As an alternative, use alt text" to provide a verbal description of your images for screen readers.

This video from Portland Community College explains step by step how to add alt text using D2L HTML editor.

The alt text can only hold 300 characters. If you need more, weave additional description of the image directly into the content surrounding it.

  1. Up the Contrast

Lack of contrast between the foreground and background colors can make your course information difficult to read for low vision and colorblind students.

This video from Portland Community College will show you how to test the contrast using the HTML editor in D2L.

  1. Optimize Complex Images

Some images, such as graphs or maps, require lengthy verbal explanations to convey their meaning to the visually impaired. These are complex images in the language of accessibility.

When including complex images in your course, strategize ways to

    • convey the complexity of the material to users of screen readers
    • ensure sufficient contrast for low vision/color blind students using conventional browsers

Strategies differ depending upon the types of complex images you use, whether graph, map, flow chart, equation or something else.

See the complex image information on the Images page at Penn State Accessibility to get started.

  1. Optimize Videos and Audio

Use Camtasia or YouTube to caption your videos for the hearing impaired. If you use any imagery in your video that conveys meaning, describe it for the visually impaired with YouDescribe.

To create a transcription of an audio file for the hearing impaired, try theTranscribe tool for $20 a year.

  1. Test, Test, Test

Use electronic testing tools to evaluate the accessibility of your course as you work. Much like spell checkers, they can find mistakes and save you time. They can also help you learn more about accessibility.

The free WAVE (Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool) works without sending course information to an external server, so it protects your and your students privacy. WebAIM, an organization dedicated to promoting accessibility on the Web, developed and supports WAVE.

Install WAVE as a toolbar for Firefox.

Navigate to a course page to test. Run WAVE. (On the left side of the toolbar, click "Wave" and then click "Errors, Features, and Alerts")

Blue, red, and yellow icons will appear. Interact with them to learn more about the accessibility of the page. If you want to make changes, go to the D2L HTML editor.

If you are wondering how a screen reader will read a course page, try out somefree ones. You could also install Fangs, a Firefox Add On that renders D2L course pages into the raw text that a screen reader would read.