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Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2021: Making your digital learning materials accessible

Isobel Gowers

Category: Anglia Learning & Teaching

14 May 2021

20 May 2021 is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Anglia Learning and Teaching's Isobel Gowers explains why accessibility is so important, and how you can make your digital learning materials accessible.

Digital accessibility is something that is close to my heart. I think this is partly because I place great importance on equity and ensuring that all students can make the most of the opportunities that higher education provides.

Outside of work I am a volunteer coach with Riding for the Disabled and this has made it clear to me that given the right tools even those with profound disabilities can flourish and achieve.

According to the World Health Organisation, one billion people across the world are disabled, equating to approximately 15% of the population. This number is increasing as people live longer and are therefore more likely to suffer from hearing or sight loss as well as mobility issues. So, what does all this mean for the digital world that we now find ourselves living in?

The power of digital

I start my Accessible Webinars session with a quote from Tim Berners Lee, who is credited with inventing the world wide web. He stated ‘The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.’ Although in this case he was talking about the internet, the same applies for all aspects of digital.

The first thing to remember is that digital offers us lots of opportunities that are not available in print and print-type formats (think microfiche). With digital materials we can change the font type, size, contrast and colour scheme, or we can even get our computers and mobile devices to read the material to us. So far so good, digital provides so many opportunities to make accessibility universal compared to print format. But does this always happen in reality?

Digital learning materials

In fact, digital materials are only as accessible as we make them. This wasn’t something I always thought about in my teaching practice. I wanted students to engage with my learning materials but hadn’t thought about how easy I make it for students to do this.

When I first started teaching, we were told to upload our files to the digital learning environment as PDF as not all students had Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, and anyone could open a PDF document. Now all that has changed. I upload my learning materials in their native format, often as Word documents or PowerPoint slides. This means that students can adapt them to make them more accessible for their own needs. They can increase the font size, line spacing, and change the font and background colour if that helps them.

One of the key things that helps me make sure my material is accessible is the accessibility checker in Word and PowerPoint (you can find it in more and more Microsoft products). I have this on in the background all the time.

At the bottom of my screen it either says: Accessibility: Good to go or Accessibility: Investigate. It highlights some of the common accessibility issues that crop up and doesn’t just tell you why you need to fix it but also tells you how to rectify the issue.

I’ve found using the accessibility checker has brought about a change in how I prepare my documents. Initially it took me a long time to sort out some of the more complex issues but now I am aware of them, I design my documents to be accessible from the start, and therefore the process is much quicker now.

What can you do?

20 May 2021 is Global Accessibility Awareness Day - #GAAD. Why not use this day to look at some of your learning materials? Make use of the accessibility checker in Microsoft or Blackboard Ally in Canvas to identify and fix some of the accessibility issues you find. Then going forward factor these in when you create new resources.

We are never going to manage to make all our previous materials accessible, it just isn’t realistic, but going forwards, just making a few simple changes when we create resources might make a huge difference to students.

Further resources

Another good way to make sure that our learning and teaching materials are accessible is to follow the advice set out in the Word, PowerPoint and PDF guides that can found on our inclusive learning and teaching page.

There is also lots of information of making accessible Word documents and accessible PowerPoint presentations on the Accessibility Toolkit on Canvas. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page there are Top Tips and also short videos on making documents accessible.

Finally, there are a range of videos on accessibility available on the Accessibility Stream channel. If you are feeling really motivated, you might also want to take a look at the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines to find out more.


The views expressed here are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of Anglia Ruskin University. If you've got any concerns please contact us.