Planning for Accessibility from the Start

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Summary: Learning and trying something new is a vulnerable act. And accessibility matters. Will you try? (Accessibility will reduce stress and scrambling later - for people with and without disabilities.)


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For many time-strapped instructors, making courses or even pieces of course materials accessible from the start can feel overwhelming. Others feel as though it’s not their jobs to make course materials accessible, and rather, are only more willing to provide accommodations on an as-needed basis when a student approaches them requesting specific accommodations. While making new course materials accessible may seem daunting, the time investment in going back and fixing course materials to accommodate students can be far greater and more challenging.

Accessible course materials vs. accommodations

In a classroom setting, course materials created with accessibility in mind are far less likely to require adjustments for students with disabilities. They are designed with all levels of ability in mind from the start!  Instructors and instructional designers who keep our Six Basic Skills and Universal Design principles in mind, are already on their way to an accessible classroom.   

Consequences of inaccessibility 

In classrooms without Universal Design principles guiding the design and development of class materials, accommodations for students are made on an as-needed basis. For example, a student who is hard-of-hearing may require captioning for all videos and online lectures (amongst other accommodations). An instructor may be alerted to the need for these accommodations during the first week of class. The first few weeks of a course can be chaotic and making these types of accommodations is time consuming and will likely put the student at a disadvantage by delaying access to foundational information. Many instructors rely on other team members or outside organizations to complete tasks like transcribing and captioning, which can take days or weeks to complete depending on the number of videos and lectures and their length. 

Payoffs of planning ahead

In the captioning example, planning ahead by creating transcripts and making captioning a regular part of course development has significant payoffs. Building-in accessibility:

  • Prevents unnecessary delays for your students.
  • Reduces stress during the already-chaotic first few weeks of the semester. 
  • Benefits students other than those with disabilities (e.g. English language learners or learners watching videos in loud or distracting environments).

What does planning for accessibility from the beginning look like?  

Below is an outline of steps to consider to make this process a little smoother.  As you add designing for accessibility to your workflow, you’ll find it becomes easier and faster; when you see just how many people benefit from the changes you make, you’ll wonder why you weren’t doing it sooner!

Create your project scope and objectives

The scope and objectives of your project will vary depending on the type of project you’re engaging in.  Making an accessible website is a very different project from making an accessible PDF.  Only you can determine the scope and objectives of your project.

Identify resources and gaps

  • What new skills do you need to learn to make your project accessible?
  • What resources do you need to help you?
    • Websites
    • Technology tools
  • Who could you add to your project team to assist you? Who do you contact if you get stuck?
    • The Disability Resource Center
    • Instructional designers with expertise on accessibility
    • Community Organizations
    • Web designers who specialize in universal design
    • Central IT Services

Develop a project timeline and plan

Identify how long you may need to learn new skills and how long these skills will take to put into action. Designing with accessibility in mind can take longer, especially if you are new to the process or need to reach out to others for assistance.  Be realistic in your timeline; plan the steps that need to happen to make your project accessible overall, even if you can’t make them all happen immediately.

An ongoing process

Designing for accessibility does not have to be an all or nothing endeavor. What pieces of your project can you make accessible given the time that time that you do have? What tasks are best done from the beginning and what materials are easier to make accessible retroactively? Let this guide your decision making if you on a tight timeline.


After research and planning, you may be ready to put your carefully thought out plan into action.

A special note about new technology tools

When searching for a new technology tool to fill a gap, this is a case when you want to skip past implementation to evaluation first.  Why?  Because while it’s important to think about how and why you want to use a tool, you may want to evaluate first, whether or not a tool is accessible for users before you get too excited about all of the amazing things the tool can do. If a tool isn’t accessible to all users, this may create an additional challenge and a lot of extra work for you in the long.  


How do you evaluate accessible course materials, websites, tools, and other digital materials?  The answer to this question, again, may depend on the project and tools you are using.  Consider the following in your evaluation:

  • Do you provide a smooth and equitable experience for all users with different abilities?
  • Are you following the Six Basic Skills outlined on this site?
  • Did you follow Universal Design principles in your design and development?
  • Have you recruited a users with varying level of abilities to test your materials and provide feedback?
  • Can you or someone else on your team evaluate your project with a screen reader? If not, who else might you reach out to for help?
  • What tools can you build into your digital materials or course to gather feedback on accessibility to identify problems that you may have overlooked? (e.g. survey or feedback forms, course evaluations, etc.)

Evaluation is an ongoing process that begins as you start developing your materials and continues throughout the delivery process.  Because technology changes, the needs of accessibility changes, too, so evaluation for accessibility for some digital materials needs to take place with greater frequency than others; for example, website compatibility with a screen reader may need to be tested when a new browser version comes out.

Revise and update

Based on your evaluation, make changes.  Your revision process, like your development and evaluation process, will likely be an ongoing process as your needs change, as well.  

Make materials accessible as you revise

Not everyone is developing courses, a website, or digital materials from the ground up, but making these changes as you revise works, too! And in fact, this may be a great way to approach revisions of your already existing course, website, or digital materials more accessible-friendly, without feeling like you have to do it all at once.  However, it’s important to keep in mind when starting from scratch, even though it may take more time up front, in the long run, you’ll be saving time, and in some cases, money, if you do plan for it from the beginning.

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