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RIT Ready: Moving Forward Into Fall
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Blog » Online Accessibility: An Overview

Rebecca Johnson, Katie Bush, and Monica Cormier--Nineteen percent of undergraduates nationally reported having a disability in 2015-2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics*.  At RIT, the Disability Services Office (DSO) reported that around 1,200 students are registered with their office for the 2019-2020 academic year. For students with disabilities, asynchronous online learning can present opportunities for enhanced access to course content and to their fellow students. Online learning can also present unique access challenges. In this overview, we will try to address some of the more common questions and concerns for faculty who wish to make their course materials and online, hybrid, or flipped class more accessible.

What is the difference between accessibility and academic adjustments?

Accessibility is an empathetic mindset as well as a proactive approach. Having an accessibility mindset means that you are aware of potential barriers to learner access, use, and understanding of your course and course materials, and that you address these barriers as best you can before the course begins. How you format your presentation documents, how you create course video, how you organize the content within your myCourses shell can all have implications. Designing and developing an online course with accessibility in mind also means that you incorporate strategies that will be beneficial for all learners. For questions about making course materials more accessible for all learners, request a myCourses consultation with Innovative Learning Institute personnel.

An academic adjustment is a particular adjustment requested by a student who has a registered disability with the Disability Services Office (DSO). This academic adjustment will be articulated in a student's Disability Services Agreement (DSA), which will be emailed to you by the DSO. The DSO recommends that students discuss their academic adjustment with their instructors. The DSO also recommends that faculty not go beyond those adjustments defined in the DSA. For any questions about the DSA or particular academic adjustments, contact the Disability Services Office.

How do you address accessibility and prepare for adjustments as you design your online course?

Any online course you make will contain those things you were able to make accessible during the design of the course and those adjustments that you make for particular students. Knowing the relationship between learner access and common forms of online course contents will help you anticipate issues and strategize.

Access to course materials, text in particular, can be increased by formatting digital documents and websites properly. Proper formatting enables tools such as screen readers to process the text effectively. A video from the DOIT center at the University of Washington features Hadi Rangin, an expert screen reader user. He describes and demonstrates the experience of using a screen reader on websites and documents. A version of this video with audio description is also available. We will go into more depth in other blog posts, but for now, here are some tips for making course content more accessible.

  • Don't scan it. This is perhaps the easiest of the recommendations to follow. Scans or images can not be read by screen readers. And for people who might need to enlarge the print without a special screen reader, there are resolution issues with a scan. If all you have is the paper document, contact the library to see whether they can acquire the electronic version. If you have a student in your course with an adjustment that includes the use of a screen reader, the Office of Disability Studies will assist.
  • Format with built-in styles. When you create visual cues in your document to indicate hierarchy of ideas or content, be sure to use the Styles tool in your word processing program. In other words, don't just make your headers large and boldface. Also, use header levels in sequence whenever possible. For example, the top-level headers should be Heading 1, the next level of subhead should be Heading 2, and so on. Screen readers depend on built-in formatting cues to read documents effectively to learners.
  • Use alternative text (alt text) for important images. Alt text is an embedded description of an image that the screen reader uses to describe the significance of the image to learners who use screen readers. Creating proper alt text for an image requires an understanding of the subject matter depicted in the image and the reason for the inclusion of the image in the document. WEBAIM provide a robust resource that explains how and when to provide alternative text for images.
  • Caption your videos and use captioned videos. We have a captioning service that captions all audio media for credit-bearing classes. We also provide captioning of ASL videos. If you wish to use a video in your class that is not captioned, be sure to contact the Innovative Learning Institute, and we will assist you.

Where can you get more information about accessibility and supporting students with accomodations at RIT?

The website for the Disability Services Office at RIT provides information for faculty on the process for acknowledging a disability services agreement (DSA) and on the test center.  For questions about making online course materials or courses more accessible, request a consultation through Teaching and Learning Services, using the myCourses category, and describing the nature of the course or course materials.

For more blog posts related to this topic, the following blog tags are relevant: access and inclusion, ATK, cognitive load, and Universal Design for Learning,


*U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Digest of Education Statistics, 2017 (2018-070), Chapter 3.


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