In the world of instructional design making online content accessible for all has reached a high level of awareness and along with it practical strategies to guide how we design and deliver content. According to Penn State’s policy on accessibility A.D. 69 (

“All Web pages published or hosted by the University must be in compliance with the World Wide Web Consortium’s standard: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Version 2.0, AA conformance level.
“…This policy applies to all University Web pages used to conduct core University business or academic activities.”

If you’re working with an instructional designer, they can guide you on how to make your content more accessible to students using principles of Universal Design (UD) whether or not you have students with disabilities. If you don’t work with an instructional designer, there are resources (people, websites, and books) that you may find helpful at the end of this article.  Being proactive has been advocated by many instructional designers because you never know whether or not you will get a student who is disabled and has an accommodation letter requesting alternate content formats.

Here are some examples given in a recent Accessibility presentation sponsored by IST at University Park:

Think about how a screen reader will read text content and image tags. Below are some other considerations for various disability categories:

  • Vision Differences (Blindness, Low Vision, Color Deficient Vision)
  • Hearing Differences (Deaf, Hard of Hearing)
  • Mobility (Can’t use mouse) (Carpal tunnel, Parkinson’s, paralysis….
  • Cognitive/Neurological (ADHD, Dyslexia,….)

What does this mean for the design of your course? Here are some things to consider:

  1. Semantic Headings (avoid bold text headings – think about screen readers)
  2. Clear Link Text (avoid “click here”)
  3. Image ALT Text (sufficient description of images)
  4. Video Captions (provide transcriptions and captions)
  5. Data Tables (make sure you have table caption tags, summary attribute, appropriate cell heading tags)
  6. Color & Contrast (think about red/green color blindness too)
  7. Document Types – (Avoid or supplement PDF/Flash)

For more information on guidelines check out:

Remember: Designing for students with disabilities is good design for all!

Universal Design Principles Applied to Learning (UDL)

First, a helpful broad framework guides applying UD principles to instruction and learning:

  • Multiple means of representation: present content in multiple ways
  • Multiple means of action and expression: differentiate the ways that students can express what they know
  • Multiple means of engagement: stimulate interest and motivation for learning

UDL and Principles of Good Practice

When it comes to putting the UDL principles into practice, principles of good practice in undergraduate education (Chickering & Gamson, 1987) is a very useful framework to integrate with the Universal Design of Instruction based on UDL. Many of us are familiar with these basic principles. Applications of the UDL principles to practice are described in the table below:

Table 1 Universal Design of Instruction Applied to Principles of Good Practice

Chickering & Gamson 7 Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education Application of UD Principles to Good Practices
1.       Encourages contact between students and faculty. Set up flexible virtual office hours and invite students to meet with instructor to discuss disability-related and other learning needs. Include this information in the course syllabus.
2.       Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students. Assign group work where students can interact and support each other, which places a high value on different skills and roles. Encourage multiple ways for students to interact with each other (e.g., discussion forums, group work, blogs, or other Internet-based communications).
3.       Encourages active learning. Provide multiple ways for students to participate, ensuring that all students, including those with disabilities, can actively participate in online activities.
4.       Gives prompt feedback. Regularly assess student progress in a timely manner using multiple, accessible methods and tools and adjust instruction accordingly.
5.       Emphasizes time on task. Ensure that all students have adequate time to complete tasks, including students with disabilities.
6.       Communicating high expectations. Keep expectations high, including those for students with disabilities, and provide accommodations to those who need it so that there is no unfair advantage.
7.       Respects diverse talents and ways of learning Demonstrate respect for diversity in ways of learning and diversity of talents and interests/motivations to ensure all students feel included.

[Source: Universal Design in Higher Education (2010), p. 31]


The Faculty Development Unit at OOE is working on a module to share with faculty and instructional designers about Universal Design for Learning and Accessibility – so stay tuned. A webinar is scheduled for October 14, 2015 where we will unveil the new OL module!

References and Resources:


Anita Graham (Manager of Access – World Campus faculty and instructional designers, afc1)

Elizabeth Pyatt (ETS, ejp10)

Accessibility Group – Mike Brooks (mlb354)

Terry Watson (Disability contact liaison – tlw37)

Christian Vinten-Johansen (commonwealth campus contact for resident faculty,


Accessibility at Penn State:

CAST: About Universal Design for Learning: (check out the video!)

National Center on Universal Design on Learning:

Virtual Accessibility Tool (Accessible Wizard) – creates documents that are more accessible and usable by everyone, including people with disabilities – Microsoft Office → HTML:


Burgstahler S. E. & Cory, R. C. (2010).  Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Coombs, N. (2010). Making online teaching accessible. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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