Creating ADA Compliant Instructional Material for Online Courses

Darshana Juvale, Pinar Celik, & Rebecca O’Connell

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Executive Summary

This document includes information on designing ADA (Americans for Disabilities Act) compliant content for online courses. It is a work in progress put together by a group of instructional designers at Engineering-LAS Online Learning (ELO). Its primary audience includes instructional designers and instructors interested in teaching online. It is not a comprehensive guide on designing online courses ADA Guide V2 for ADA compliance, nor is it certified by Iowa State University (ISU). However, initial exploration has shown that in order to achieve compliance from all instructors, the institution needs multiple approaches – educating faculty on UDL, providing faculty with Do-It-Yourself ADA tips and resources, and signing up with a captioning service.

Email the ELO Design Team at with your suggestions for improvement.


This document is a work in progress initiated by a group of instructional designers at Engineering-LAS Learning Online (ELO). The motivation for this work stemmed from the designers’ desire to create quality online courses that are pedagogically sound and accessible to a diverse audience.

After extensive research and testing, ELO designers have developed Do-It-Yourself (DIY) tips and techniques for designing ADA compliant instructional materials, like images, documents, and audio/videos. These tips and techniques need to be continually updated.

Additionally, in order to achieve compliance from all instructors, it is recommended that ISU educates faculty in UDL (Universal Design for Learning) best practices and invests in a commercial captioning service. CELT has developed a course on UDL that faculty can enroll in to learn ways of making their course accessible to a diverse audience. Also available is AccessDL (The Center on Accessible Distance Learning) funded by the U.S. Dept of Education that provides guidance on making distance learning courses and programs accessible to students and instructors with disabilities. A list of vendors for closed captioning is included in Appendix A.

This document is organized into two sections:

1) Laws Impacting Web Accessibility and 2) Tips for Creating Accessible Media


There are state and federal laws requiring the University to assure online material is accessible to current and prospective students and employees. This document deals with ways to make online courses accessible to all people, regardless of their impairments or situation. Additionally, this document is designed to help assure the University is meeting its legal obligations when it comes to web accessibility. Increasing accessibility while managing legal risk is the twofold goal of this guidance.

At the federal level, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended, is an anti-discrimination statute designed to ensure equal access to opportunities, programs, and benefits for qualified individuals with disabilities in education, employment, and other areas.

At the state level, the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in both employment and education. This incorporates the right to access information in education, employment, and other areas.

Common problems with web accessibility create legal risks under both the ADA and the ICRA.


  1. Audio/Video Accessibility
  2. Document Accessibility
  3. Image Accessibility
  4. Website Accessibility
1) Audio/Video Accessibility Tips

Audio and videos need to incorporate features that make them accessible to everyone. Providing transcripts that can be downloaded and/or closed captions with audio and video are two of the main ways of making audio/video accessible to hearing and/or vision impaired users. More and more, closed captioning is becoming a preferred method.

Closed Captioning of Online Audio and Videos: Closed captions, frequently confused with subtitles, provide text equivalents of the spoken part in a video. They are in the same language as in the medium. Closed captions are synchronized with the audio and usually appear at the bottom of the screen. If only audio is available, a transcript is made available for download.

ADA/ICRA compliance tips: The following are some best practices for closed captions:


  • Captions should be accurate. They should fully represent the audio, including speaker identification and non-speech information. When a speaker stutters, caption what is said.
  • Equal – Meaning and intention of the material is completely preserved.


  • Spelling and Capitalization – Be consistent in the spelling of words.
  • Punctuation and Grammar – Follow conventional rules of Standard English.
  • Hyphens and Dashes
  • Nonessential information that needs special emphasis should be conveyed by double hyphens or a single long dash.


  • Consistent – Uniformity in style and presentation. Use a font similar to Helvetica medium with clear resolution.
  • Text Considerate Case – Mixed case characters are preferred.


  • Closed captions should be timed to synchronize with the audio. To check for compliance, select the Captions options drop down > Show non-compliant duration. This option highlights any captions in red whose duration is not between three and seven seconds.
  • Only one to three lines of text should appear on the screen all at once, stay there for three to seven seconds, and then be replaced by another caption.
  • Include not more than 32-charcters per line.
  • Lines should be broken at logical points where speech normally pauses, unless it exceeds the 32-characters-per-line requirement.
  • Readable – Displayed with enough time to be read completely.
  • Placed properly and must not interfere with existing important information. Captions should not cover graphics and other essential visual elements of the picture

Creating Closed Captioning: There are multiple ways for creating closed captions.

  • You can outsource the whole process and have commercial vendors create the transcript, insert time codes to sync with the audio, and upload to the video server. See a list of vendors in Appendix A.
  • Outsource part of the project – either create the transcript and send it to a vendor for creating time codes and then upload the transcript with the time codes to the video server, or
  • Do it Yourself (DIY). See accompanying document “Do It Yourself Guide on Creating Closed Captions”.
2) Document Accessibility

Concerns the proper formatting of documents for screen readers. (See more information on Kurweil 3000 screen reader used by ISU Student Disability Office in Appendix A). Always provide documents in an alternative format, such as HTML or RTF (Rich Text Format), in addition to PDF. Text-based formats are the most compatible with assistive technologies.

Resources for creating ADA Compliant PDF, DOC, PPT Files

  • The National Center on Disability and Access to Education has developed a one-page accessibility “cheat-sheet” to assist in creating accessible content.
  • How to make a Word Document Accessible” by Portland Community College.
  • MS Word: Headings” video by Portland Community College
  • Acrobat DC” tools make it easy to create accessible PDFs and let you check the accessibility of existing PDFs.
  • Ways to make an accessible PDF on Mac: (Resource WAMOE)
    • Start with a well-structured, accessible word document or presentation.
    • Click the file tab and select save as. In the Save as type field, select PDF.
    • Enter a file name in the File name field.
    • Click on options button and make sure the documents structure tags for accessibility checkbox is checked.
    • Click OK.
    • Click Save. This will tag all of the text formatting so page headings and lists are correctly interpreted by a screen reader.
  • Scanning a Document to a PDF: Scanning a document means taking a photo of it. Since a photo of text is not accessible, you will need to run optical character recognition (OCR) on the scan. This will make the text on the scan readable by assistive technologies.
    • How to run OCR on a PDF using Adobe Acrobat Pro:
      • Open your PDF file.
      • Open the Tools panel (click “Tools” in top right) and click “Recognize text”.
      • Click “In this File” and click the “Edit” button to adjust your OCR settings.
      • Select the “Language” of the text.
      • For the output style, choose “searchable image” for PDF output style and down-same too 600 dpi.
      • Click Ok when done
    • Fonts Tips on use of fonts while creating ADA compliant documents:
      • Ensure your text is readable by using at least 10px san serif fonts, such as Arial, Helvetica or Verdana. These font types will magnify well for those who have low vision.
      • If there is an image with text in it, make sure to put the text in the alternative text [opens in new window], so it will be accessible to blind students.
      • Refrain from using floating text boxes, track changes or commenting, because these features are not accessible.
3) Image Accessibility

Involves adding text description to images that can be read by screen readers.  Screen readers typically skip images on a web page if there are no descriptive tags attached to them. Including an image that constitutes an important part of the content without its text equivalent puts the student with visual impairment at a disadvantage. Possible solutions include:

  • Adding a text equivalent to every image, which will enable a user with vision disability to understand its meaning. The text equivalent can be in the form of:
    • An alt text description, which is detected by screen readers, but is not visible to other users.
    • Image captions that describe the image
  • A description in the text surrounding the image. See examples of Alternative Text Descriptions for Images
  • Try not to use only images and/or graphics to convey important content. Images and graphics should be used to enhance existing text and not constitute the main content.
4) Website Accessibility

Tips – see images and audio/video accessibility tips

Use WAVE to check websites for basic levels of accessibility. WAVE is a free designed Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool.

Tips for Using WAVE for ADA Compliance” by Temple University Libraries.

  • Adding Alternative Text to an image makes that image accessible to the blind. Successful alternative text description for the image either could be:
    • in the surrounding paragraph text
    • an alt text description,
    • a long description or
    • a caption
  • Providing the text format for audio files makes them accessible to those with hearing disability.
  • For colorblind users, the visuals can be tested by converting them to grayscale. As long as visual elements have hierarchy, they should be comprehensive for those individuals. Check “Colour Blind Awareness” website for more in- formation regarding the use of colors in your website.
  • Websites should be designed so they can be viewed with the color and font sizes set in users’ web browsers and operating systems.

Provide audio descriptions of images (including changes in setting, gestures, and other details) to make videos accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. Provide text captions synchronized with the video images to make videos and audio tracks accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. (See options for making videos accessible in the next section).

See US Department of Health and Human Services Guidelines on Creating an ADA-Compliant Website.



Caption Solutions (877-674-5800) –


Screen readers are assistive technology that help users with poor vision navigate a website by reading aloud text displayed on the computer screen. Kurzweil 3000 is the screen reader used at Iowa State University. Kurzweil 3000 is an integrated scan and read software program that provides multi- sensory access to reading material with powerful tools for reading, writing, test-taking and learning. Kurzweil 3000-firefly provides four platform options:

  1. Windows
  2. Mac
  3. ipad app
  4. Web App accessible via web browser

If you need Kurzweil 3000 software on your computer, you can download and install it from one of these locations:

You can use firefly to browse through your Universal Library and read Kurzweil or text files directly from a computer’s web browser.

A great option for instructors to add video discussion topics.
User FriendlyCopy/paste a link to your Grid in Canvas
Free for all educators.
Where to get help
Company's website
A useful tool to store and share your documents with all of your classes and colleagues. You create folders and decide how to share them.
Canvas integration through embeddingEasily used across devices
Free available to all ISU faculty
Where to get help
Allows for threaded, asynchronous communication between students and instructors. Great option for instructors who want to encourage more in depth online discussions.
AL-Supported Online Discussion Platform
Purchased • Information available on Packback website
Where to get help
Company Website