Accessibility and Inclusivity

This resource explains key considerations to help your online teaching—synchronous or asynchronous—be accessible and inclusive. The information is not meant to be an exhaustive or fixed list of things you must do, but rather provides guidance to help you design and deliver courses so that all students can engage.

Key Considerations for a Welcoming Online Course

Design for universal learning

Many guiding principles for accessibility and inclusivity relate to the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. The UDL framework—which you can learn more about in the UDL Canvas course—advocates proactive course design and delivery. Being proactive means keeping flexibility and diverse learning needs in mind from the start, instead of retrofitting to needs as they come to your attention.

Being proactive in your course design offers several benefits:

  • It can save you time, since retrofitting a course for accessibility and inclusivity can take longer later than when you consider these needs from the start.
  • It removes the burden for marginalized students of having to ask for help. Due to the administrative and emotional burdens involved in “proving” needs (e.g., a formal diagnosis by a doctor), requesting accommodations can make these students feel vulnerable. Some may choose not to request help, even if it compromises their ability to learn.
  • It assists students who may not know to ask for help or be able to ask for help. Not everyone realizes their accommodation needs or qualifies for formal assistance.

Therefore, we encourage you to plan your teaching with accessibility and inclusivity in mind from the beginning. Establishing an open line of communication that invites students to share their needs is a large part of this and a good first step. This resource will help point you to other specific areas of consideration.

For example, in synchronous teaching, you might consider turning on closed captioning during lecture. Closed captioning can help students with hearing impairments as well as others with less obvious challenges, such as speaking another language as their first language, taking the class while putting a baby to sleep, or attending class while in a noisy place (e.g., public transit).

Or for asynchronous teaching, you might consider how to best organize text in Canvas. In particular, designating heading text as headings with the text editor (rather than only styling headings differently) allows them to be more easily read aloud for students with visual impairments, and it can make the page more easily scannable for other students, including those with learning disabilities.

Consider what’s essential when balancing needs

As described above, implementing one inclusive measure can benefit a broad range of student needs. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for making a more inclusive and accessible learning environment. Consider the following when making decisions for your particular teaching context.

  • Prioritize essential needs: At times, one inclusive measure may be in conflict with another need. For example, while closed captioning can help students in multiple situations, it can also distract some students, such as those with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and processing disorders. In these cases, consider the students in your specific course and prioritize any accessibility needs you must cover (i.e., what you are legally required to accommodate by UBC Policy LR7) over options that are nice-to-have, or look for ways to accommodate everyone through personalization (e.g., allowing closed captioning to be turned on or off on an individual basis).
  • Weigh equity and equality: Extending an inclusive measure to everyone can be beneficial at times, yet may exacerbate inequality at other times. For example, you could allow extra time on a time-based quiz for everyone, if you’ve been told that some students will need more time due to a disability or other need. This approach ensures an equal opportunity for everyone. However, this approach does not necessarily lead to equal outcomes. If, in your context, only a certain number of students can get an ‘A’, giving everyone extra time may create unfair competition. In this case, it would be necessary to give extra time only to students who you know need it to ensure equity, meaning a fair opportunity for everyone. (Alternatively, you could consider whether a competitive grading system or tight time restriction is necessary for what you are trying to achieve and perhaps reduce any unnecessary stressors for everyone.)

Prior to the start of your online course, you could…

Open up a conversation about accessibility

Suggestion: You can ask your students to share their needs and concerns with you before the course begins.

How it can help:
Soliciting student input can help you prepare appropriate accommodations in advance of class—including those needed to comply with UBC Policy LR7—and can help set a tone for the course that welcomes diversity.
Considerations:

  • Invite students to email you or come to your office hours to discuss their needs.
  • Send out a link to an online survey as another way of gathering this information. See the Word document “Gauging Student Access to Online Courses” for suggested survey questions that can help you understand barriers to online learning (e.g., availability of Internet, comfort while being on camera, etc.).
  • Remember that not all students may be comfortable sharing their situation, so you can also direct them to the Centre for Accessibility (UBCV) or Disability Resource Centre (UBCO).

Be aware of the limitations of online interactions

Suggestion: Consider the needs of a variety of students (e.g., those with visual and hearing impairments) when planning online interactions.

How it can help:
Not all features offered by tools such as Zoom are accessible in the same way to everyone. Depending on your classroom composition, modifying or re-designing your real-time interactions may help more students to engage.
Considerations:

  • In Zoom, neither the whiteboard feature nor the links in the chat window are read aloud to students using assistive software for visual impairments (i.e., screen readers).
  • It’s best to be prepared to narrate any visual material, including whiteboard activities, polling, and text in the chat. Speaking and spelling out links as well as repeating questions (written or spoken) during the session will also help all students follow along.
  • When using breakout rooms, consider if you’ll have a sign-language interpreter or live transcriber or captionist who will need to be specially assigned to a room with hearing-impaired students.

Optimize your audio settings

Suggestion: You can minimize potential audio issues on your end to help students (and any interpreters, transcribers, or automatic closed captioning) hear you clearly during lectures.

How it can help:
Technical issues with your audio can potentially impact accessibility for the whole class and may further disadvantage students with less ideal audio setups or noisier learning environments.
Considerations:

  • For clearer audio, consider purchasing a headset with a built-in microphone or using an external microphone that plugs into your computer.
  • Try to find a quiet, dedicated space to lecture from. More useful video and audio lecture tips are on UBC’s Keep Teaching site.
  • In Zoom, test your audio quality and volume by going to ubc.zoom.us/test.
  • You can adjust Zoom settings to mute students as they arrive and disable audio notifications of their coming and going:
    • Go to ubc.zoom.us/profile/setting and sign in. Make sure the “Mute all participants when they join a meeting” toggle is on (blue) and the “Sound notification when someone joins or leaves” is off (gray).

Before each class, you could…

Distribute key documents and files

Suggestion: You can share in advance the documents and files (e.g., slides) that you are going to use during the class through email, Canvas, or any other online platform you use for the course.

How it can help:
Students who use assistive software for visual impairments (i.e., screen readers) will need to load the documents and files ahead of time. Other students may also benefit from the chance to view materials beforehand, to help them prepare.
Considerations:

  • Providing documents and files ahead of time only works for students using screen readers if you’ve made sure the content itself is accessible. Check out UBC’s Accessibility Toolkit for help in making content accessible.
  • Reducing files to the smallest practical size can make it easier for all students to view and download them, regardless of Internet speed. The smallest practical size is the smallest size you can save as without compromising the quality of the file. Many applications let you save or export what you make in different formats as well as minimize file size.
  • Consider saving and uploading an alternative version of any Microsoft Word documents in PDF format, so they can be opened in applications other than Word. When saving as a PDF from Word, you can select the “Best for electronic distribution and accessibility” option.

Consider using closed-captioning in Zoom

Suggestion: If you will use Zoom to include real-time closed captioning of instructor audio, you can decide how to approach it: use the automatic closed captioning, have someone type a live transcription, or appoint a trained captionist.

How it can help:
Closed captioning can help students with hearing impairments as well as others with less obvious challenges, such as speaking another language as their first language, taking the class while putting a baby to sleep, or attending class while in a noisy place (e.g., public transit).
Considerations:

  • First, these options need to be enabled for your Zoom account:
    • Go to ubc.zoom.us/profile/setting and sign in. Scroll to the “In Meeting (Advanced)” settings, make sure the “Closed captioning” toggle is on (blue) and/or the box for enabling live transcription is checked.
  • The automatic option is good for quick display; the live transcription or trained captionist may be better for accuracy. Note that only one person can fill the role of transcribing / captioning for the session.
  • Zoom does not currently provide automatic closed captioning in breakout rooms. If you use breakout rooms, place the appointed transcriber or trained captionist and the students with hearing impairments in the same room.
  • Closed captioning can be distracting for some students, particularly those with learning challenges. Make sure students know they can turn the feature on and off using the CC option in the bottom bar of the Zoom application.

At the start of / during each class, you could…

Set up any audio assistance features you will use in Zoom

Suggestion: At the beginning of your class, you can start closed captioning / transcription and highlight any interpreter video by spotlighting it.

How it can help:
Turning on the closed captioning—whether you will use the automatic or transcription option—allows students to see it, if they want to. Spotlighting an interpreter video means that video will remain visible to everyone at all times and appear consistently in a recording.
Considerations:

  • Start closed captioning and transcription:

      In the active Zoom session, click the “Live Transcript” icon at the bottom of the screen, and either select “Enable Auto-Transcription” or select someone to type.

  • Spotlight a video:

      In the active Zoom session, hover over the video you want to spotlight (e.g., a sign-language interpreter), click the three dots, and select “Spotlight for Everyone”.

  • An alternative to spotlighting is to tell students they can “pin” another person’s Zoom video to make it consistently available only on their own screen, without affecting anyone else’s view.

Encourage a respectful, inclusive environment

Suggestion: You can set explicit guidelines and expectations for how everyone in your course can to help create an inclusive learning environment.

How it can help:
Agreed-upon guidelines can show your commitment to an environment that is inclusive of all backgrounds and needs, which in turn can help all students feel they belong. The class can also refer back to the guidelines as the term progresses.
Considerations:

  • Part of your guidelines could include a clear communication protocol—like the good netiquette rules on UBC’s Keep Learning site—ideally developed with your students. Either way, make sure everyone agrees to the guidelines.
  • Reference UBC’s Equity and Inclusion Classroom Guidelines for more considerations and guidelines.
  • Invite students to change their display name in Zoom, add pronouns to this name, use a virtual background (accessed by clicking the up arrow next to the video icon), or turn off their video, depending on their comfort level.
  • Outline the specific ways you may be asking students to participate in class, whether using chats, polls, whiteboard activities, waving, or raising a hand. In particular, explain how and when you will take questions, ideally allowing for multiple ways to engage, including using non-verbal feedback.
  • Be upfront if and why you will be recording any sessions and where those recordings will be shared.

Ensure a secure online space for real-time interactions

Suggestion: You can take proactive measures against unwanted visitors joining your session and prepare to respond in case of a Zoom “bombing” (someone outside the course joining the class session).

How it can help:
Zoom “bombing” or any other interruptions from unwanted visitors are inherently distracting and disrupt student learning. They may also be traumatic when motivated by expressions of hate (e.g., racism, misogyny).
Considerations:

  • Keep session links and passcodes private to the course and avoid sharing them publically.
  • If security issues arise, stop all participant activity:
    • Click the Security icon at the bottom of the screen, and select Suspend Participant Activities. This action will lock the meeting and stop all participants from using video, audio, and screen-sharing.
  • See more tips for keeping your Zoom session secure in UBC’s Zoom instructor guide.

After each class, you could…

Provide multiple ways of reviewing the real-time session

Suggestion: You can share recordings and/or transcripts of the class with students.

How it can help:
Many students can benefit from the chance to review class sessions, whether in written or audio-visual form, because they can engage with these materials at their own pace and on their own time.
Considerations:

  • Recordings and transcripts can support many different student needs. For example, these options can offer flexibility for students who learn better with text than verbal communication, students who cannot take good notes at the pace of class, or students whose first language is not the one used in the lecture.
  • If you use Zoom’s built-in closed-captioning tool, a transcript will download automatically to your computer as a text file when you end the session, in a folder created for the session.
  • Review and edit transcripts prior to distribution, if accuracy is important. Editing any automatically-generated transcripts can be time consuming, so you might also consider allocating regular time or resources (e.g., a teaching assistant) for this process.
  • Make sure students know where and how they can access any recordings and transcripts.
  • Note that recordings must abide by legal restrictions—namely, you must follow UBC security requirements and FIPPA to keep recordings confidential and secure, and you cannot share recordings outside the course (or in a different term of the same course).

When setting up your online course, you could…

Consider language settings

Suggestion: You can set the language of documents you upload and let students know that they can change the language setting themselves in Canvas.

How it can help:
Students using assistive software for visual impairments (i.e., screen readers) benefit from having the language of the material set for them, and some students may find it easier to navigate Canvas in a language different than the default.
Considerations:

  • In Canvas, students and instructors can change the Canvas language setting to a preferred language. You can share these instructions with your students.
  • Languages can be assigned in the settings of individual files using Word, PowerPoint, PDF, and other applications. You can look for how to set these before you save and share the files.

Streamline your course organization and navigation

Suggestion: You can organize content in small clear chunks of information, such as topics or weeks, and use descriptive labelling for all content.

How it can help:
Finding and keeping track of content can increase the cognitive load for your students. The less clear the course structure, the more difficult it may be for students to engage with learning the material, especially for those with learning disabilities.
Considerations:

  • In Canvas, you can use a structure called modules to organize course content. Each module can contain files, assignments, assessments, discussions, and other learning materials.
  • Using modules helps you group content into manageable pieces (e.g., topics, weeks, units). Consider adding direct links to each module on the home page.
  • In your Canvas course settings, you can also minimize your course menu to only include links that are necessary for navigation.

Use application-designated headings as part of your structure

Suggestion: You can break up course content with descriptive headings that are designated as headings in the application where you created the content (e.g., Canvas text editor, Word document, PowerPoint).

How it can help:
For clarity and to help students using assistive software for visual impairments (i.e., screen readers), it’s best to designate headings as headings in the application where you create the content, rather than showing headings only with a different visual style (e.g., bolded, underlined).
Considerations:

  • Options for heading levels are typically presented in the text editor toolbar of a web page or in the top toolbar (i.e., “ribbon”) of a Microsoft application like Word or PowerPoint.
  • Use tables for displaying data, if you need to, but not for the layout of a page. Screen readers will read the page as a table to students, which can be highly confusing. Follow accessible guidelines for any tables by adding a table caption and using a heading row.

Strive to have all content designed with inclusivity in mind

Suggestion: As you build out your course, you can consider how your text, multimedia, formatting, and design can be optimized and varied to be inclusive of everyone.

How it can help:
The needs of students are diverse and presenting content both simply and in a variety of accessible formats (written, visual, auditory) can support everyone.
Considerations:

  • Try to ensure that the text and images on each page meets visual accessibility standards. For example, choose text that is easy to read, don’t rely on colour alone to indicate visual differences, use higher contrast in Canvas, and add metadata to images for students with visual impairments (i.e., fill in the alt text information). In Canvas, an accessibility checker tool can be accessed from the toolbar of any text editor for help with this optimization.
  • Where appropriate, provide captioning and/or transcripts for video and audio content. The media platform Kaltura is built in to Canvas, and you can add captions to multimedia using Kaltura.
  • students using assistive software for visual impairments (i.e., screen readers) and increase the scannability of your content, try to describe what will be accessed by clicking any course link. For example, use a meaningful phrase in the linked text like UBC’s main website rather than a generic phrase like “Click here” or the direct web address (https://www.ubc.ca).
  • Avoid flashing, flickering, or animated text—including in some cases animated gifs—as certain motions may cause seizures for some students.

Include diverse representation in course content

Suggestion: You can consciously select a broad variety of people to cite as sources and to use as examples in text, images, and other multimedia.

How it can help:
Diverse representation in course materials can help all students feel included and create course content that provides meaningful engagement for everyone.
Considerations:

  • Draw from many different authors and sources, if possible, when citing or linking to expert information. Consider calling specific attention to voices that have been/continue to be marginalized in the academic area of focus.
  • In written examples like case studies, seek to use a wide variety of names, gender identities, locations, and other such personal details and avoid falling back on stereotypes.
  • Try to search for and use images or other multimedia that reflect diverse identities (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, dis/ability, body size, etc.). For example, consider using diverse stock images.

At the start of / during the course

Encourage a respectful, inclusive environment

Suggestion: You can set explicit guidelines and expectations for how everyone in your course can help to create an inclusive learning environment.

How it can help:
Agreed-upon guidelines can show your commitment to an environment that is inclusive of all backgrounds and needs, which in turn can help all students feel they belong. The class can also refer back to the guidelines as the term progresses.

Considerations:

  • Part of your guidelines could include a clear communication protocol—like the good netiquette rules on UBC’s Keep Learning site—ideally developed with your students. Either way, make sure everyone agrees to the guidelines.
  • Think about how you model inclusive language for your students in what you post, especially when participating in discussions and giving feedback.

Be flexible with time-based work, where needed

Suggestion: You can look at allocating more time for time-based quizzes or assignments, either for the class as a whole or for specific individuals.

How it can help:
Some students with disabilities or other needs can require more time than others to complete tasks, because they take longer to read and respond or they need to access content through an assistive technology.
Considerations:

  • Invite students to share any needs or concerns, either over email or by attending a virtual office hour, to help you make appropriate arrangements.
  • In Canvas, you can add time extensions and multiple attempts to quizzes for individual students.
  • If only a certain number of students can get an ‘A’, giving everyone extra time may create unfair competition, and it may be preferable to give extra time only to students who you know need it. Alternatively, you could consider whether a competitive grading system or tight time restriction is necessary for what you are trying to achieve and perhaps reduce any unnecessary stressors for everyone.