How do I make my writing & math accessible?

Online courses rely heavily on writing. While text is the most readily accessible way of providing information to students, there are still steps that need to be taken to ensure that students can fully engage with the text, regardless of how they access it.

Instructions do not rely upon shape, size, sound, or visual location.

These requirements aren’t to say that these elements can’t be used–the problem arises when these elements are relied upon exclusively. “Click the round button” or “read the left-hand list” means little to a student cannot see where text exists on a page. Instead, direct students using text. “Click the start button” easily guides all students to a button labeled start, and “read the list of research sites” will direct students to the appropriately titled list, regardless of where it is located on the page.

The page has a descriptive and informative page title.

Descriptive page titles help users orient themselves in the course site as a whole without requiring them to read–or listen to–the full content of the page.

For example, say that in a given course module, there are three homework assignments, and a student using a screen reader wants to refresh herself on the directions for the essay. If the pages are titled “Assignment 1,” “Assignment 2,” and “Assignment 3,” then she will have to go into each page and listen to the content to find out which is the one she needs right now. However, pages titled “Assignment 1: Group Project,” “Assignment 2: Reading Response Essay,” and “Assignment 3: Final Project Outline” provide the needed information right away.

The purpose of each link can be determined from the link text alone, or from the link text and its context.

In online courses, it’s easy–and encouraged–to provide links within instructional materials, so that students can immediately go to the web site, article, or video being discussed. However, when providing this links, it’s important to make sure that the text of the link is descriptive and unique. Students who use screen readers can, on a properly formatted web page, jump from link to link in order to skim a page and get a sense of the content, navigation, and structure. However, if all the links on a page say “click here,” then very little information is provided.

For similar reasons, providing the full URL of a website is not advisable. Screen readers will read out the entirety of a URL, and being forced to listen to “h t t p colon backslash backslash d l period s p s period northwestern period e d u” for every URL gets very tiresome very quickly. Instead, it is much better to direct people to the SPS Distance Learning website, for example, by embedding the link in the text.

Page headings and labels are informative and avoid duplication.

Similar to the need for unique and descriptive links and page titles, headings and labels on a page should be informative. This allows screen reader users to quickly skim the content of a page and find the section they need, rather than listening to the entire page.

Write out dates, use full stops, and other grammar tips.

There are also a few small tips that can help screen reader users navigate and understand a page more easily. Writing out dates whenever possible is one of them; for example, writing July 21 instead of 7/21. For sighted users, the different seems minimal, but to someone listening via a screen reader, it’s a difference between “July two-one” and “seven-slash-two-one.” The first is more easily and quickly understood as a date.

In addition, include full stops (periods, question marks, exclamation points, etc.) at the end of all sentences and most statements, including headers and items in lists. This tells the screen reader to pause and indicates a break to the listener. To understand why this is important, try reading the heading of this section out loud, but don’t pause after the word tips; just keep going into “There are…” as if it were one big, run-on sentence–because without punctuation, that’s how the screen reader will interpret it.

Use online tools to make math formulas accessible.

Mathematical formulas are often represented visually, and figuring out how to render them in plain text for an alternative text description can be challenging. However, there are numerous online tools that can be used to generate accessible math for online courses. One of these is available in Canvas: by selecting the Math Editor tool, you can write and insert mathematical formulas that can be read aloud by a screen reader. You can also insert text created in LaTex, an open source document editor used to prepare mathematical and scientific reports. Creating readable formulas within Canvas or another math editor is preferable to taking a screenshot of a formula and inserting it into the page.