Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to course design and teaching that seeks to minimize barriers and maximize learning for all students. Universal Design is ultimately aspirational – it seeks to design something in a way that is as accessible as possible to as many people as possible; however it may not always be universal in practice. So UDL recommendations for document design on this page should always accompany efforts to learn about the individual needs of your students. When additional accommodations are necessary to meet a particular student’s needs, campus resources can offer further support.
A significant component in reducing barriers for students is creating documents and course materials which are designed to be as broadly accessible as possible. This page offers some general suggestions for making documents and course materials more accessible and reducing barriers for students. It also includes links to some technology-specific resources for accessible design.
Suggestions for Creating Accessible Documents
Creating accessible documents and revising existing materials can be a time-intensive process. The suggestions below focus on how to avoid some of the most common accessibility barriers in document design. Some of the accessibility principles may not be relevant to the kinds of materials you design. You also may not be able to adopt every principle at once, but any adjustments you can make—even incremental changes–will yield documents that are more accessible to greater numbers of students.
The use of clear, legible, and high contrast fonts can reduce barriers and assist readers who process text visually. Sans-Serif fonts are often a good accessible choice. They include Arial, Helvetica, and Lucida Sans. This resource on accessible fonts has more information about preferable fonts and fonts to avoid.
Most document software allows users to assign a hyperlink to specific text. Using descriptive links (rather than copy-pasting a URL) can help readers better navigate the document. Ideally, descriptive links in an electronic document would provide clear information about where the link leads. For links in printed documents, consider using a URL shortening tool (such as Tiny URL) to make it easier for readers to type the link into a web browser.
Use list controls and tools when creating any content that is organized as a list. The vast majority of document software provides specific tools for creating unordered lists (such as bullet points) or ordered lists (such as numeric or alphabetical designations). Using a list management tool to create and designate a list (rather than simply typing numeric or alphabetic designtors before each point in the list) helps screen reader users to understand how the content is organized. Using tools to designate content as a list notifies screen reader users when lists are encountered and allows them to more easily navigate to specific items on the list.
When creating a document (such as a Google Doc, word processing document, or PDF) designate section headings and titles as heading text in the document. Ideally, the headings would function to provide an outline of the document so that subheadings correspond to subsections under main-headings and sections. Designating text as a heading (rather than simply making the font larger, bold, or underlined) enables screen reader users to quickly understand how the document is organized and more easily navigate to specific sections.
Tables can be a useful way to organize and present data; however, content organized in tables can also be difficult for screen reader users to navigate. Employ tables selectively when appropriate for organizing information and avoid using them for formatting purposes. Document software has other means of formatting content and layouts (such as organizing text into columns) which are easier for screen reader users to navigate. If there is data which is best presented in a table, consider keeping the table simple or breaking it up into multiple smaller tables with their own headings. Designating column and row labels as table headings can also assist screen reader users in navigating a table.
Alternate Text for Images
If your document includes images, it is recommended that you include alternative text for the image to assist those who are unable to see it. Alternative text is a brief description that goes alongside the image explaining what it portrays and should reflect the purpose of the image in the text. Images that have a decorative function will require minimal alt text (e.g. “Decorative”) because the image does not provide content that is required to understand the presented material. Images that are used to convey information will require more robust alt text. Many document creation tools provide a way of directly adding alternative text to an image, often in a dialogue box which appears when the image is added or as part of the image properties.
If using text with color or text on a colored background, ensure sufficient contrast between the text and the background. This is generally helpful in assisting readers who visually process text, but can be especially important for readers with visual limitations or colorblindness. Consider using this color contrast checker to determine if there is sufficient contrast between font and background colors.
Special Characters and Symbols
Some special characters and other symbols in text can pose difficulties for screen reader users. In some fields or types of literature, symbols may be a necessary part of the document. In cases where they are unnecessary or easily avoided, consider replacing them with text or providing alternative text for them.
In addition to the above general suggestions for all types of documents, the CTE offers resources on reducing barriers and creating accessible documents with particular technologies.
You may wish to consult our resources on accessible design for the following technologies:
Many technologies have their own internal accessibility checkers (like the Word accessibility checker described on this Microsoft support page.)
Other Accessibility and Accommodation Resources
There may still be some circumstances in which individuals require specific accommodations in addition to or different from the accessibility measures recommended above. In some cases, what is beneficial for one student may pose barriers for another and vice-versa. Depending on the need, Boston College’s Disability Services Office and/or the Connors Family Learning Center may be able to provide additional support for instructors and students regarding accessibility accommodations.