Designing for Accessibility: How to Front-Load Your Digital Content with UDL Principles

Instructors collaborate on designing an accessible course

Accessibility is a big deal. We include statements about accessibility in our syllabi and on our institutional websites. We also need to ensure that we comply with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, as amended in 1998, and that learners with disabilities have “equal access” to online course content.

And, yet, every semester accessibility and IT offices find themselves overloaded with requests for closed captioning or transcripts, and requests for online material accommodations for students with disabilities. Students fail tests and/or miss assignment deadlines because important infographics or images do not have alternative tag descriptions, YouTube videos—crucial to the first exam—have no closed captioning, or students need to read 20 scanned and untagged PDFs that a screen reader just cannot read.

With tools like Ally Accessibility Checker embedded in learning management systems and the availability of screen readers, learners of all abilities have more options for accessing their content. With Ally, students can download their syllabus or PowerPoints as audio files and listen as they commute. They can also use Braille Readers to take quizzes.

Having more options for accessing content is great, as long as the content we are creating is great. Unless we create and collect content that meets accessibility standards, students do not have equal access to content.

However, when we create and collect digital content that follows Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles for multiple means of representation, specifically for perception or accessibility, then our online courses are already accessible to a majority of learners with diverse abilities.

When we create or collect content using UDL principles, our goal is to have online or blended courses that look ahead and meet learners’ needs before they even enroll in the course, and before we get an accommodation letter from the student accessibility office. We may not have to scramble to make accommodations before something is due. Designing for accessibility means anticipating needs based on trends and institutional data, and creating a course where content is accessible to the greatest number of diverse students.

Is front-loaded accessibility a lot of work? Yes, but it is front-loaded work. This means it is done in advance and with intentful course design, careful content authoring and editing, and commitment to teaching all students.

Follow these steps to create content that is accessible to all students:

  1. Run the accessibility checker as you create Word Docs, PDFs, and/or PowerPoints and correct the errors and warnings as you work
  2. Use the heading and list functions in Word and use an accessible font, like Verdana
  3. Use high contrast colors and avoid using underlining and bold to make a point
  4. Provide links to online resources and/or order a digital course packet for hard to come by resources instead of scanning and uploading as a PDF
  5. Include only necessary and content-driven images and add the alternative descriptions as you work
  6. Use captioning when you record lecturettes and edit for accuracy. You can record with captioning and edit closed captioning in your Panopto and Zoom. You can also edit captioning in recordings you upload into YouTube

Follow these steps to assess digital content you collect for accessibility:

  1. Test that PDFs you find online are tagged and searchable
  2. Ask publishers to provide online or digital content (like PowerPoints) that meet accessibility standards
  3. Provide links for websites with working links and accessible font and contrast colors
  4. Check that third-party YouTube videos have accurate captioning (if they do not provide a transcript or ask your accessibility office to run the video through Amara)
  5. Provide students with accessibility statements and contact information for online tools like Blackboard, Zoom, VoiceThread, YouTube, Poll Everywhere, Flip Grid, etc.

Recommended Product:

Bio: Caran Howard is an instructional development specialist at the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls. In 2015, she earned a PhD in social foundations of education, with an emphasis in history of education. Howard earned her MA and BA in English, with a writing emphasis from the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). Howard has over 19 years of teaching experience in higher education and community organizations: UNI, the University of Iowa, Wartburg College, Hawkeye Community College, the Hearst Center for the Arts, and adult education.


Bureau of Internet Accessibility “Why Websites NEed an Accessibility Statement.” May 22, 2017.

CAST. “Universal Design for Learning Guidelines.” Version 2.2.

Haynie, Devon. “Students With Disabilities Meet Challenges in Online Courses.” U.S. News and World Report, April 4, 2014.

University of Washington. “Captioning Your Own Video for Free.”

U.S. Department of Education. “Accessibility Statement.”  Last modified September 14, 2017.

WebAim. “Microsoft Word: Creating Accessible Documents.” Last updated July 22, 2016.

WebAim. “PDF Accessibility: Defining PDF Accessibility.” Last updated April 26, 2019.

WebAim. “PowerPoint Accessibility.” Last updated January 8, 2019.