Accessibility and Inclusion at SPS

Columbia University promotes diversity and inclusion, both inside and outside of the classroom. One of the most important ways that faculty and staff can support these principles is by ensuring that course content (documents, PDFs, presentations, images, video, audio) meets digital accessibility standards. 

Digital accessibility addresses the immediate needs of learners related to sensory, physical, and/or cognitive impairments; and digital inclusion provides all learners with equivalent access to a digital interface, regardless of disability. This takes the concept of "accessibility" a step further by considering efficiency and usability as part of the user experience. 

Below are links to the Digital Accessibility Toolkit created by and for CUSPS faculty and staff, as well as some recommended “quick wins” that will enable you to ensure course offerings at CUSPS become more equitable and inclusive for all learners. 

This video was created at the University of Washington. It conveys what a student with disabilities may experience with components in a course that do not meet digital accessibility standards.

Digital accessibility touches nearly every aspect of campus life and work, from applications to websites, to courses. Adult students have a higher incidence of disability and are less likely to seek accommodations than the general student population, so it is critical to anticipate their needs, especially in online classes. Research shows that compliance with mandated standards ends up helping all students and staff succeed: from those who use assistive devices, to those whose first language is not English, to those who benefit from having more than one method of accessing media. It is in this spirit of inclusion that we hope the Digital Accessibility Toolkit will be a useful resource for you.

The Digital Accessibility Toolkit is a resource developed for CUSPS faculty and staff by the Accessibility and Inclusion Working Group, which includes representation from Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and Administrative Affairs.

If you are new to digital accessibility, the Getting Started with Digital Accessibility primer has been developed with you in mind. It includes a list of the Quick Wins you can implement to make small-scale improvements to the accessibility of the content you create. These Quick Wins can be applied to any kind of document you create, whether an MS Word doc, Google Doc, Google presentation, PDF, etc. Adopting them consistently will go a long way towards helping you develop, maintain, and practice an accessible and inclusive mindset--for the benefit of students and colleagues alike.

Quick Wins

The core principles of digital accessibility are the same for all document types, but the individual steps vary depending on which tool you’re using and what the final format of the document will be. To learn how to put the following Quick Wins into practice using specific authoring tools, see the article "How to Create Accessible Documents" in the Digital Accessibility Toolkit.

It is far more efficient to create accessible content than to remediate content once a request for accommodation is made by a student or a colleague. Therefore, every effort should be made to encourage CUSPS faculty and staff to adopt digital accessibility standards and apply them to the content they create within their workflows.

Avoid using PDFs that are scanned images of text

PDFs consisting of scanned images of text are inherently inaccessible because the content of the document is a graphic representing the letters on the page, not searchable text. This makes the text impossible for screen readers to decipher. Run such PDFs through an Optical Character Recognition scanner (OCR) if possible. Contact the CUSPS Helpdesk for additional support. 

Include navigation landmarks in your document

Landmarks like headers, footers, page numbers, and page counts help your readers find where they are in your document. To maximize accessibility, especially in long documents, include one or more of these landmarks.

Use headings to organize your document

Virtually every document authoring format includes support for headings and subheadings. Headings and subheadings should be identified as such using the built-in heading features of the authoring tool. Headings should form an outline of the page content (Heading 1 for the main heading, Heading 2 for the first level of sub-headings, Heading 3 for the next level of sub-headings, etc.). This enables screen reader users to understand how the page is organized, and to quickly navigate to content of interest.

Use informative link text

Screen readers can scan for links, so informative link text is helpful. It's best to use the title of the page as the linked text. For example, if you're linking to your profile page, the link text should say "my profile," not "click here" or the full URL.

Use comments and suggestions

Use the commenting and suggesting features instead of writing notes within the text of your document or presentation. Screen reader users can jump to comments using keyboard shortcuts rather than hunting through your file. The file owner can also receive email notifications or review comment threads.

Use numbered and bulleted lists

Any content that needs to be organized as a list should be created using the list controls that are provided in document authoring software.  Most authoring tools provide one or more controls for adding unordered lists (with bullets) and ordered lists (with numbers). When lists are explicitly created as lists, this helps screen readers to understand how the content is organized. When screen reader users enter a list, their screen reader informs them that they’re on a list and may also inform them of how many items are in the list, which can be very helpful information when deciding whether to continue reading.

Use text to support formatting

It's best not to rely on visual formatting alone to communicate meaning. Screen readers might not announce formatting changes, such as boldface or highlighting. For example, to mark an important section of text, add the word "Important."

Check text size and alignment

Except for captions and images of text, text can be resized without assistive technology up to 200% without loss of content or functionality. For traditional computer monitors, a font size of 12-14 points/pixels is generally recommended for body text (depending on the audience). 

To make your document or presentation easy to read, use large, left-aligned text when possible. Justified text is more difficult to read because of extra space between the words. To change the alignment, press Ctrl + Shift + L (Windows or Chrome OS) or ⌘ + Shift + L (Mac).

Share a presentation in HTML view

Google Slides HTML view displays your whole presentation in a single, scrollable HTML page, instead of displaying the presentation one slide at a time. This is a helpful feature if your audience includes people who use screen readers. To access a presentation in HTML view, use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Alt + Shift + p (Windows or Chrome OS) or ⌘ + Option + Shift + p (Mac).

Avoid using images to create text content

Whenever possible, use text, not images, to create text content. Images of text lose fidelity when enlarged, which can make the text difficult to read, especially for users with visual impairments. 

Avoid reliance on visual characteristics

Some users are unable to perceive color differences, or may not perceive color the same way you do. Therefore it is important to avoid using color alone to communicate information.

Make sure every image has alt text

If the image (graphic, photo, chart) contains words that are important information to the viewer, include them in alternative text (alt-text). If the image is decorative/ contains no relevant information, leave it null. For more information, see the article "How to Ensure Your Images Are Accessible" in the Digital Accessibility Toolkit

Check for high color contrast

High color contrast makes text and images easier to read and comprehend. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 recommend a minimum ratio of 4.5:1 for large text and 7:1 for other text and images. For example, avoid light gray text on a white background. To check contrast, use the WebAIM contrast checker.

Support for applying Quick Wins to your content

For detailed information on how to apply these Quick Wins using the authoring applications you create documents with, please see the article "How to Create Accessible Documents" in the Digital Accessibility Toolkit.

In Canvas, there are certain things you can do to make your course content accessible for all students. This includes students with special physical, sensory, or cognitive requirements, as well as accounting for the different ways that students learn.

CUSPS templates for Canvas are WCAG 2.1 compliant, and you are encouraged to use them for your course sites. However, many changes made to these templates can render them non-compliant, notably altering the HTML and uploading files that are not accessible. The following guidelines, in addition to those addressing document and image content in the previous section, are recommended best practices to ensure course site and web page accessibility.

Contact your instructional designer or the Innovation and Academic Technology team to learn more about using CUSPS templates in Canvas course sites.

See the article "How to Create Accessible Course Sites and Web Pages" in the Digital Accessibility Toolkit for additional details.

Caption your videos

All recorded lectures or videos should have captions. If you create your videos with Panopto, you can import automatic captions and edit these yourself. Contact the CUSPS Helpdesk for captioning support. 

Ensure All Embedded Multimedia is Accessible

  • If a video is embedded in a PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation, ensure that it is captioned, and that the player controls are accessible.

  • If an audio only file is embedded, ensure a transcript is included.

Add alternative tags (alt-text) to your embedded images

Screen readers cannot read images, but they can read alternative text provided about that image. Here are instructions on how to add alternative text to your images in Canvas. (Links to an external site.) See the article "How to Ensure Your Images Are Accessible” in the Digital Accessibility Toolkit for more information on this topic. (Links to an external site.)

Avoid using scanned PDFs

PDFs are not accessible if you cannot highlight the text. PDFs should be tagged and formatted so they can be read by screen readers. Contact the CUSPS Helpdesk for additional support.

Avoid using tables to organize information

Tables are confusing for screen readers and don't always resize correctly for various screen sizes. Instead, use bulleted lists.

Attach embedded links to descriptions

When embedding a link, it is not good practice to simply paste in the URL into the page. Instead, attach the link to words that describe the link destination (Links to an external site.) Doing this will help everyone – with or without a screen reader – understand where the link will take them. Context is important!

Please consult the Canvas General Accessibility Design Guidelines for more detailed information. 

  • Headings are formatted with built-in heading styles, not changed through font size and formatting; applies to Word, PowerPoint, HTML, PDF
  • Levels of heading are accurate and were not skipped. For instance, the top-level heading is Heading 1, the next level is Heading 2, etc; applies to Word, PowerPoint, HTML, PDF
  • Descriptive hyperlinks are used rather than “click here” or the whole URL; applies to Word, PowerPoint, HTML, PDF
  • Use bold or italics for emphasis rather than underlining. Avoid using all caps; applies to Word, PowerPoint, HTML, PDF
  • Bulleted lists were created using the bullet function, not dashes or tildes (~); applies to Word, PowerPoint, HTML, PDF
  • White space is added through styles and formatting, not by inserting tabs or using the space bar; applies to Word, PowerPoint, HTML, PDF
  • Color was not the only method used to convey meaning. Avoid red, green, or orange in general; applies to Word, PowerPoint, HTML, PDF
  • Sufficient contrast in color is used - for instance black text on a white background or white text on a black background; applies mostly to PowerPoint, but includes all images and text 
  • Scanned PDFs have been checked to ensure correct reading order and headings were tagged accurately; applies to all PDFs 
  • In Canvas: set documents to open consistently either in a new window or in the same frame so students know what to expect 
  • Online courses: consider the necessity of synchronous activities such as web conferencing or chat; provide accessible options whenever possible
  • Tables are not used for formatting only, are created through the Table function, and are designed as simply as possible. Merging cells is avoided; applies to Word, PowerPoint, HTML, PDF
  • Outline View was used in PowerPoint to identify unreadable text or incorrect reading order; applies to PowerPoint
  • Videos are captioned or, if appropriate, a transcript is provided (ideally both)
  • Images have alt-text describing the content for students with visual disabilities; applies to Word, PowerPoint, HTML, PDF

Additional Resources

Why do our digital course materials need to be accessible? The answer is two-fold.

Four federal laws require accessibility of all digital resources:

Secondly, courses that are made accessible to students with disabilities also prove useful students without any documented disabilities. For instance, video captioning helps students who are English language learners or consume content in noisy (or quiet) locations.

The increase in digital course content and updates to Section 508, combined with a rising tide of lawsuits at Harvard, MIT, and hundreds of other institutions, have pushed digital accessibility into the forefront of higher education awareness. In developing course materials for online courses, it is important to bear in mind that, as a public university receiving federal funding through the Assistive Technology Act, Columbia University is required to meet Section 508 standards for web-based intranet and internet information and applications.

Conforming to these standards requires that materials that are not already created to meet accessibility standards will need to be altered to accommodate students and colleagues with disabilities. Examples of materials that would require accommodations would include:

  • Videos that have audio would need captioning and text transcripts
  • Audio files would need text transcripts
  • Images should have alternate text or descriptions set for them to convey meaning
  • Color-blind individuals should be able to interpret a page successfully
  • HTML tables should use the <th> tags to designate column and row headers

It is far more efficient to create accessible content than to remediate content once a request for accommodation is made by a student or a colleague. Therefore, every effort should be made to encourage CUSPS faculty and staff to adopt digital accessibility standards and apply them to the content they create within their workflows.

Please note that the Columbia University Office of Disability Services recommends all faculty include the following statement in their course syllabi unless they are using a Canvas syllabus template that already contains this or similar language:

"Columbia University welcomes students with disabilities into all of the University's educational programs. In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, a student with a disability must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled, participate in an intake interview, and provide documentation: https://health.columbia.edu/content/general-guidelines-disability-documentation. If the documentation supports your request for reasonable accommodations, your campus’s disability services office will provide you with a Letter of Accommodations. Please share this letter with your instructors and discuss the accommodations with them as early in your courses as possible. To begin this process, please complete the Registration form on the ODS web site at: https://health.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/content/Docs/disability_registration.pdf."

CTL has developed an Accessibility in Teaching and Learning resource page on its website that provides instructors with an overview of accessibility in teaching and learning and general “getting started” strategies for making learning resources, tools, experiences, and opportunities accessible to all learners. Creating an accessible learning environment for your students is part of inclusive teaching and learning practice. If you’re interested in learning more about inclusive teaching in particular, please see the Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia

If you want to learn more about digital accessibility and how to create accessible web-based content, consider taking one or more free, self-paced courses from the following catalogs:

The following free courses focus on accessibility as a foundational principle for Universal Design for Learning (UDL):

  • Basics of Inclusive Design Online. From the University of Colorado at Boulder, hosted on Coursera. Covers course organization, the accessibility of Microsoft Office and PDF documents, making course instruction pages accessible, captioning of videos, making images accessible, and designing for learning differences. It also includes discussion on how inclusive course materials can help all students, including students without disabilities.
  • Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom. From the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning, hosted on edX. Explore the principles of inclusive teaching and learn how to apply them in your classroom to support diverse learners. 
  • Accessibility: Designing and Teaching Courses for All Learners. From SUNY, hosted on the Canvas network. Engaging in this course will help you understand civil rights issues surrounding accessibility and empower you to design learning experiences that promote inclusive learning environments.