Planning Accessibility from the Start

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.)

For many time-strapped instructors, making courses or even pieces of course materials accessible from the start can feel overwhelming. Others feel as though their job is not 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 will find that the process becomes easier and faster; when you see just how many people benefit from the changes you make, you will wonder why you were not doing this sooner! 

Create Your Project Scope and Objectives

The scope and objectives of your project will vary depending on the type of project you are 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? 

  • Six Basic Skills 
  • Web Design and/or Development 
  • Learning new technologies 

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? 

  • Disability Support Services
  • Instructional designers with expertise in accessibility
  • Community Organizations
  • Web designers who specialize in universal design

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 cannot 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 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 thinking about how and why you want to use a tool is important, you may want to evaluate first whether a tool is accessible for users before you get too excited about all of the amazing things the tool can do. If a tool is not accessible to all users, this may create an additional challenge and a lot of extra work for you in the long run.   


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 users with varying levels 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 the process all at once. However, do keep in mind that when starting from scratch, even though implementing accessible-friendly material may take more time upfront, in the long run, you will be saving time, and in some cases, money, if you do plan for this process from the beginning.


Article ID: 115392
Wed 9/2/20 1:27 PM
Wed 3/24/21 9:23 AM