Blackboard Accessibility Webinar: Making VLE sites accessible to disabled students

Accessibility: Headphones with text description of a graph represented in text format

Online learning resources, websites and platforms should be accessible for students with disabilities. However, how learning materials are created and how VLE module sites are structured can create unnecessary barriers to students who use assistive technologies such as screen-readers (text-to-speech software), magnifiers, have physical impairments that impact their use of a keyboard or a mouse, or other disabilities that mean interpreting content on screen is difficult. Often these barriers are down to resource creators not knowing what the accessibility considerations are. In this post we look at the ideas shared by JoAnna Hunt, Accessibility Manager at Blackboard (software providers for the Yorkshare VLE), in a webinar delivered on 28 July on ‘Making Blackboard Modules and Content Accessible for All’.

Inclusive learning design

Underpinning Blackboard’s accessibility approach is an ethos of ‘diversity, inclusion and equity’. Accessibility is not just about allowing disabled students access to resources, but is also about supporting learning and making the whole experience for a wide range of users more effective. As a lecturer, you might know the disabled students in your class and be able to cater for their specific needs, however some students may not disclose a disability, by personal choice or for other reasons, or have a ‘hidden’ disability that you and other students may not be aware of. A good starting point to accessibility begins with an inclusive learning design, to enable all students to meet the module and programme learning objectives, rather than focusing on undertaking the exact same tasks. Inclusive learning design is implemented in different ways depending on the discipline and there are useful case studies and examples available:

Quick checklist: inclusivity

JoAnna Hunt provided a quick checklist to help review your own teaching approach, with emphasis on creating a clear structure for students to navigate, scope for adaptability of learning activities for different students needs, and alignment of learning activities to learning outcomes to help students study effectively to meet the assessment requirements.

  • A module outline is available to students.
  • Learning outcomes are clearly defined.
  • Differentiated activities are available when applicable.
  • Opportunities exist for collaborative learning.
  • Explicit instructions are provided for all tasks (including clear deadlines).
  • Universal thinking is apparent in your curriculum (avoiding assumptions based on non-disability, language and cultural background).

Adapted from Hunt (2016).

Accessibility in Yorkshare for disabled users

The Yorkshare VLE is an accessible platform, however how we use it to create our module sites and share resources can have a negative impact on disabled users if basic accessibility approaches are not used. These approaches often take little time to implement and improve the overall quality of resources and the learning experience. Our accessibility guidance is an integral part of the York Technology-Enhanced Learning Handbook. In particular, take a look at Section 1.2 on AccessibilitySection 2. Module site design, structure and layout and Section 3. Creating resources. Three fundamental techniques are described below and featured in JoAnna’s webinar.

Using headings

The text editor in the VLE, used when creating content items, announcements, blog posts, pretty much any place you type in Yorkshare, has a range of formatting options. However, if you are creating headings to break down your content into chunks, use the Format menu and choose the Heading style. This creates a bit of code behind the scenes that allows screen-reader users to identify that piece of text as a heading, and if they wish they can navigate straight to it.

Screenshot of Blackboard text editor with the Format drop down in the menu bar highlighted and Heading selected. The font and size options are crossed out, as is the underline option.

Don’t use the font and font size options, as these don’t convey any meaning to screen reading software and can also make screen magnification tricky. If you want to emphasise something, don’t use underline as underlining is most commonly used to identify clickable links. Use bold to draw attention to key words or phrases.

Headings in Word documents and PDFs are also essential and in large documents offer a quick way to create tables of contents. For further advice on headings see York TEL Handbook 3.4 Document creation.

Link text

When linking resources, make the title of the resource the link text. Don’t use ‘click here’ or non-descriptive text as screen-reading software often isolates links from surrounding text and can lose context when reading aloud. Even using the word ‘slides’ as the linking word may be confusing if you have nine links to lecture slides for your term on one page.

Screenshot of the blackboard text editor with a bad link to slides crossed out and a good link with the slide title highlighted

You should apply the same principles to file naming, see York TEL Handbook 2.4 Titles, descriptions and file-naming.

Image descriptions

If you include images or graphs, you can use the VLE text editor to add a text description. Text descriptions of images are read out automatically to screen-reader users, so they should be short and only need to convey the meaningful information about the image. Detailed description is best kept to the main part of the text, for the benefit of everyone.

Screenshot of the add image popup for the Blackboard text editor with an example text description provided

Use the Image Description box when adding an image with the VLE text editor. Further advice on writing image descriptions is in York TEL Handbook 3.3 Files, images and links.

Quick checklist: content

JoAnna Hunt summarised some of the things to watch out for when creating content either on the VLE or in other programs like Word:

  • Images have text descriptions.
  • No images of text (use plain text instead).
  • No distracting blinking images, decorative animations or animations that cannot be stopped.
  • Use headings for Word.
  • Use Word’s accessiblity tag option when saving a PDF.
  • Videos have captions provided and/or full transcript.
  • Meaning is not conveyed with colour alone and colour contrast is clear on screen (a good check is to print in black and white).
  • Tables are not used for layout, only for data.

Adapted from Hunt (2016).

Beyond the VLE

If you are using other online tools, it is essential to check for accessibility compatibility before embedding them as an integral part of your module. Most sites will have an accessibility statement, but be aware that technical compliance does not always mean the tool can be practically used by disabled users. If you must use a tool that is not accessible to all your students, you will need to have an alternative process in place. This process must be equivalent and not exclude the student or require them to be dependent upon someone else in order to participate. Different students will have different accessibility requirements, so do not assume a particular approach will work for all students. You may need to discuss with your departmental disability contact if you have any queries.

Quick checklist: tools

As a final checklist, JoAnna Hunt offers here a series of questions you can use to see if online tools and platforms meet some basic accessibility requirements.

  • Do colours within the tool have suitable contrast?
  • Can the whole page magnify and remain usable when using browser controls?
  • Are all functions and controls accessible using a keyboard only?
  • When clicking text labels in forms, does the keyboard cursor jump to the input element?
  • Are audio notifications provided with a visual cue?
  • Is the content accessible if no visual styling is present, as if plain text (turn off style-sheets on a web page)?
  • Are any plug-ins, specific apps or downloads required?

Adapted from Hunt (2016).


Creating accessible learning resources within the VLE and designing module sites in an accessible way with clear structure and consistency does not take much effort. With accessible approaches there are benefits not just to disabled students, but to all students as content and activities better allow individuals to choose how they want to engage with the learning materials. JoAnna’s final message was to build in and be accessible from the start, work together to find common approaches and share resources, and importantly be able to confidently answer yes to this question:

If a student comes up to you and says they cannot access a resource – do you already have a Plan B?

Update 2020

Sign up for our Creating Accessible Documents workshops and view other related events in the e-accessibility events calendar.

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