Making VLE sites more accessible

The content on this page is an edited version from an older blog post on the topic.

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.

Accessibility statements

As part of the 2018 regulations, websites should have an accessibility statement to let users know which part of their sites may be inaccessible, what we are doing about it and who to contact for alternative formats. Most departments at the University of York now have an accessibility statement about their vle sites, in addition to the accessibility statement for the vle.

Fundamental techniques

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 2. Module site design, structure and layout and Section 3. Creating resources as well as our summary of accessibility guidelines.

Three fundamental techniques are described below.

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.

Descriptive 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

Download the Accessibility Checklist in pdf format or Word format to assess your site and resources.

  • Clear site structure with short, meaningful folder and file names.
  • Short descriptions and instructions.
  • 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.
  • Word documents should have headings, lists, alternative text for images and tables, descriptive hyperlinks, good font size and colour contrast.
  • PowerPoints should use slide templates, have unique slide titles, alternative text for images and tables, use speaker notes (where appropriate), descriptive hyperlinks, good font size and colour contrast.
  • PDFs created from Word and PowerPoint should have bookmarks.
  • Alternative formats are provided.
  • Videos have captions provided and/or full transcript (more guidance on this is being prepared in readiness for the 2020 deadline).

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, here are 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).

Summary

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. 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?

Related page: 1.2 Key accessibility guidelines

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