Five Steps to Universal Design and 508 Compliance for Online Courses

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, amended in 2008, requires that publicly funded (Title II) and private (Title III) colleges and universities provide all students with equal access to education and educational facilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandates that reasonable accommodations must be provided to students with disabilities and can include extra time or alternative spaces for exams or assignments, access to lecture slides, and designated note takers or aids.  (ADA and DOJ: FAQs)

American universities and colleges have been, for the most part, proactive in meeting the necessary accommodations as outlined in the ADA and other disability laws. They don’t have a choice. Not only is it the law, but the fear of being sued — and rightfully so — for noncompliance is ever present. Besides academically accommodating and supporting students who register with the Office of Disabilities, campuses have provided physical access to university buildings, classrooms, and housing by providing ramps and other access points, working elevators or escalators, and redesigning dorms and classrooms to accommodate wheelchairs, sensitivity to stimuli, and sight or hearing impairment. Following the ADA Guidelines for Accessible Design, institutions of higher education have transformed the physical space of campuses and, by following the ADA Standards for Education, they strive to create an accessible learning experience for all students.

But what about online courses? While not physical classrooms, they are technically spaces for learning. On January 18, 2017 the United States Access Board published its final decision regarding the revisions to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. While Section 508 was originally aimed at electronic and informational technology used by the government, the new ruling states that 508 compliance is required by all universities and colleges. According to Martin LaGrow, “it has been widely accepted that colleges and universities are subject to its requirements under Title II because they almost universally receive some form of federal funding.” Therefore, all websites, digital communication, and online courses must be accessible, affective January 18, 2018. Despite what many online instructors may think, accessibility under the law requires far more than just providing captioning for video lectures.

Universal Design Standards for Course Design

The ADA provides faculty with the minimum standards as required by law. Universal Design Standards for course design expands the ADA requirements to create a learning environment that is accessible to the majority of the student population, including those that aren’t protected under the ADA such as ESL students. Originally developed for architectural design, Universal Design stresses clarity, consistency, and accessibility in course design, all of which improve student engagement and learning.

So where do you begin? Following, is a quick and easy guide to get you started with Universal Design and help you make your courses 508 compliant.

  • Course Layout and Structure.
    Your course should have a “Welcome” area that welcomes the students to your class and gives them basic information about you, how to reach you, and your office hours and location. A “Start Here” section is a good place for this welcome area and where you should include all of the information about the course, where things can be found, your expectations, and in-course links to the syllabus, assignments, tests, and course calendar. Regardless of how you set up your course, a student should click no more than three times to reach content. Furthermore, content should be consistent and have a logical flow. All students do better when they know what to expect, what is expected of them, and how to easily find important information and content. Online courses should not be needlessly difficult to navigate. Keep your course design simple and keep in mind that colorful backgrounds might make it difficult for some students to read or may trigger sensitivities. Black text on a white or light background provides the proper contrast.
  • Font.
    Have you thought about font size, style, and color lately? Probably not. Fonts should be easy to read by everyone. Readers have an easier time reading a sans serif font like Helvetica or Arial that is 12 points or more. Take a look at your syllabus. Do you have important information picked out in red font? Be aware that a color blind student will not be able to see the red font and therefore, won’t know you stressed that section. Color should not be used as the sole means of communication. In addition to the red font, bold the section so that all students understand what you are emphasizing. 
  • Screen Readers.
    Do you know if your course content, including all documents and files, can be read by a screen reader? It is mandatory that all electronic information and files available on your Learning Management System have screen reader capability. Most platforms such as BlackBoard and Canvas are ADA and 508 compliant. However, you will need to modify any added content to meet accessibility standards. When creating content pages in the LMS, use the platform styles available. For example, when creating headings use a heading style. When creating your syllabus, exams, and other documents use the style formatting tools in Word or Pages. Style formatting is coded and will be read by a screen reader accordingly. This helps visually impaired students know the difference between a header, a title, and the body of the text. By using the style formatting tool, you are helping all of your students make sense of the information presented. It’s important to remember that not all PDFs are created equally. If you export your Word document to PDF format, style formatting will be transferred to the new document and will be read as such by a screen reader. However, if you scan a chapter from a book, a screen reader will not be able to read the text because it “reads” the scan as an image. You must put the scanned document through OCR software or find the text online. Consult your university’s librarians for help. Not all scans will be accessible, but you should have a plan in place to deal with any issues that might arise.
  • Video and Audio Files.
    Most online faculty know that all videos and audio files require captions or a transcript. Check with your ITS department to see if your university uses an outside vendor to caption videos and prepare transcripts. Most importantly, check with your department to see if there is money in the budget to do so. If the answer is “no,” then it’s up to you, the faculty member, to caption your own videos and create transcripts. Most video editing software like Camtasia allows you to easily caption your videos. If you need help captioning your videos for free, Youtube’s captioning is accurate and getting better all the time. Keep in mind, YouTube will not caption videos over an hour and will often take 24 to 48 hours to do so. YouTube channel owners can edit their videos’ captions and can download the full transcript. BlackBoard and Google Classrooms support embedding YouTube videos. Check with your IT Department to make sure you have access to YouTube via your LMS.
  • Images.
    Images are a key component to what we teach. We project them in front of a class, we use them in our lecture videos, and we expect our students to discuss them at length. When adding an image to a content page in your course, make sure you provide both, the title information and image description. This information will be read by a screen reader. Furthermore, make sure the resolution of each image is 72 DPI and between 400-600 pixels wide. Most LMS can handle no more than 30 MB, but check with your IT Department to see if they have stricter storage and uploading regulations.

If you follow these five steps when designing your online course, you will be on your way to creating an educational experience that is accessible to all student populations. For more information, visit the Disabilities Office on your campus and discuss course design with your Instructional Technology or Faculty Training Departments.

Check out these websites to brush up on the laws and to get more information on how you can utilize Universal Design Standards:

Department of Justice, “Americans with Disabilities Act: Title II Technical Assistance Manual”

Department of Justice, “Americans with Disabilities Act: Title III Technical Assistance Manual”

Departments of Justice and Education, “Frequently Asked Questions on Effective Communication for Students with Hearing, Vision, or Speech Disabilities in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.”

Meris Stansbury, “10 Steps for Making Your Online Courses Accessible for All Students,” eSchool News: Daily Tech News and Innovation. December 17, 2015.

UA Little Rock, “10 Steps Towards Universal Design of Online Courses. Disability Resource Center.


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