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How to Make Your Online Courses ADA and WCAG Compliant

Ensuring your online courses are accessible to all students regardless of disabilities is both an ethical obligation and legal requirement. ADA and WCAG compliance opens up learning to millions of students with visual, hearing, mobility and cognitive disabilities.

Beyond inclusion, ADA compliance for your online course also reduces legal risks and expands your market reach. This guide explores practical strategies to make courses accessible according to ADA and WCAG standards.

As online learning continues to gain popularity, it is essential to ensure that online courses are accessible and compliant with ADA and WCAG guidelines. ADA, which stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act, is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. WCAG, or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, provide recommendations for making web content more accessible to people with disabilities. In this article, we will explore the key principles of ADA and WCAG compliance and provide tips on designing and teaching accessible online courses.

Overview of ADA and WCAG Standards

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and requires equal access to educational experiences.

ADA guidelines for online learning state that courses must:

  • Provide equal opportunity to the educational experience
  • Offer accommodations when necessary
  • Be accessible with assistive technologies like screen readers

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) offer specific technical criteria for accessibility organized into three levels – A, AA, and AAA. Most experts recommend compliance with WCAG Level AA standards at minimum.

Detailed WCAG Level AA Compliance Criteria

WCAG compliance centers around four principles often called POUR:

Perceivable

Information is available for students to perceive through senses or assistive tools:

  • Text alternatives exist for non-text content like images, videos, animations etc.
  • Captions are provided for audio content
  • Content can flexibly resize without loss of functionality
  • Visual presentation sufficiently contrasts against backgrounds

Operable

Interface and navigation work with assistive technology:

Understandable

Content and interface are intuitive for a wide range of cognitive abilities:

  • Language is readable and straightforward
  • Content appears in predictable location and order
  • Instructions provided where necessary
  • Assistance identifying errors and submitting corrections

Robust

Course maximizes compatibility with current and future assistive technologies:

  • Compatible with modern web standards and conventions
  • Graceful degradation allowed as technologies advance

A 100% WCAG compliant course meets all Level AA criteria, enabling a high quality learning experience for all students.

Top Course Elements to Audit for Accessibility

Conducting an accessibility audit identifies gaps in meeting ADA and WCAG standards. Be sure to evaluate:

Course Registration and Enrollment

  • Keyboard navigable without mouse
  • Form labels and instructions understandable
  • Sufficient contrast between text and background
  • Confirmation of enrollment received

Course Platform Interface

  • Logical information hierarchy and structure
  • Keyboard navigation for menu and pages
  • Text resizing without loss of content or function
  • Contrast meets minimum ratios

Course Content Pages

  • Logical heading structure using proper HTML hierarchy
  • Links, buttons, and controls identifiable
  • No reliance on sensory characteristics like shape or location

Learning Videos

  • Closed captioning included
  • Audio transcripts available
  • Keyboard controls for playback
  • Avoiding flashing images/strobing effects

Audio Content

  • Full audio transcripts included
  • Ability to stop, pause, rewind, and replay
  • Volume controls to amplify sound

Presentations and Documents

  • Proper heading structure for screen readers
  • Color contrast meets standards
  • Keyboard navigation through content
  • Alt text provided for all images

Quizzes and Exercises

  • Form inputs properly tagged and labeled
  • Keyboard navigable without mouse
  • Mechanisms provided to review and correct answers
  • Timeout durations and warnings before automatic submission

Discussion Forums

  • Logical page structure and hierarchy
  • Labels and instructions for all controls
  • Transcripts for any embedded video/audio
  • Alt text included for attached images

Assess every area students interact with for compliance across web pages, apps, documents, multimedia, assessments, and communications.

Recommended Accessibility Testing Methods

Testing helps locate any deficiencies to remedy. Useful methods include:

Automated Testing

Use web accessibility evaluation tools like SiteImprove, aXe, or WAVE to analyze pages and content against ADA/WCAG criteria.

Screen Reader Testing

Actively test site with commonly used screen readers like JAWS, NVDA, VoiceOver to ensure keyboard navigability and perception.

Color Contrast Checking

Use tools like Contrast Checker, Color Contrast Analyser, and Contrast Ratio to check foreground/background color combos across all course assets meet standards.

Manual Validation

Manually review code against standards, validate proper HTML semantics, confirm captions and transcripts, thoroughly test forms, media players, navigation and tools.

Third-Party Accessibility Auditing

Hire accessibility specialists like UserWay, Accessibe, or AudioEye to audit courses and address compliance gaps.

Proactively identifying issues early in the design process is more efficient than retrofitting accessibility later.

Key Course Design Strategies for Better Accessibility

Beyond remediating issues, follow universal design best practices:

Offer Multimodal Content

Present information through visual, audio, text, interactive etc. This provides options in perceiving content based on ability and learning style.

Customizable Interfaces

Allow students to modify aspects like font-size, colors, and text-to-speech to suit their needs.

Intuitive Navigation

Design consistent, simple, well-labeled navigation schemes across all pages and tools to avoid confusion.

Built-In Accessibility Components

Leverage existing accessible widgets and components from frameworks like Bootstrap or Contentful that embed best practices.

Progressive Enhancement

Use web development approaches like responsive design, graceful degradation and feature detection to maximize compatibility with assistive technologies.

Plain Language

Write instructional copy that is clear, concise, and avoids complex vocabulary so all students can understand expectations.

Focus on Consistency

Keep navigation, content order, controls, labels and layout as consistent as possible across all course pages and tools.

Baking in accessibility from the start results in a more inclusive learning experience.

Creating Equally Accessible Alternate Versions of Content

For non-text media like video or audio that can’t be made accessible, provide alternate versions:

Video

Include a text transcript containing the video’s full spoken dialog and description of key visual elements.

Complex Images/Charts

For images like charts or graphs that convey information visually, provide detailed written descriptions explaining the meaning and content.

Audio

Produce a text transcript of all audio content or spoken word recordings.

Animations

Describe key elements and actions that occur in animated sequences in text form.

Simulations/Virtual Reality

Allow students to read a text description that captures key details about immersive simulations.

Without equally effective alternates, you exclude students from fully engaging. Capture important details in text.

Documenting Your Accessibility Plan

Creating and publishing an accessibility statement detailing your compliance plan and progress builds trust. Include:

  • Commitment to accessibility and brief overview of standards
  • Measures taken so far and roadmap for future improvements
  • Contact information for disability support services or to report issues
  • Process and policies for requesting accommodations

Prominently display this statement in your course FAQs and registration pages. Proactively communicating your dedication to inclusion is valuable.

Utilizing Tools to Streamline ADA Compliance

Specialized tools can simplify and automate aspects of accessibility:

  • Ally – Blackboard tool scans course content and generates alternative formats. Provides accessibility reports.
  • Amara – Auto-captioning for video. Also provides audio descriptions and transcript translation.
  • Rev – Transcription services including captioning. Integrates with platforms like YouTube, Zoom, and Google Slides.
  • AccessiBe – AI-powered automated remediation of accessibility issues on web pages. Provides compliance reports.
  • FunctionFox – Helps manage student accommodation requests and services.

Leveraging tools reduces the labor while upholding standards. But always validate results.

Partnering with Disability Support Services

Most educational institutions have existing disability/accessibility support departments. Collaborate with them on inclusion for your courses:

  • Consult on best practices for accessibility based on experience.
  • Establish process for students to submit accommodation requests related to your course that you fulfill in coordination.
  • Get feedback to identify any accessibility gaps observed from supporting students.
  • Explore integration of your LMS and other tools with theirs to streamline accommodations.
  • Cross-promote your course and their services.

Their expertise and infrastructure can supplement your compliance efforts.

Understanding Online Course Accessibility

Why is accessibility important in online courses?

Accessibility in online courses is crucial because it allows individuals with disabilities to have equal access to educational opportunities. When online courses are designed with accessibility in mind, it ensures that all students, regardless of their abilities, can engage with the course content effectively.

Benefits of creating accessible online courses

Creating accessible online courses offers numerous benefits. First and foremost, it ensures that students with disabilities can fully participate and succeed in the course. Furthermore, designing courses with accessibility in mind benefits all learners by improving usability and enhancing the overall user experience.

Key Principles of ADA and WCAG Compliance

Understanding ADA guidelines

ADA guidelines outline the requirements for making websites and online content accessible to individuals with disabilities. These guidelines include provisions for accessible design, navigation, multimedia content, and accommodation for users with different needs.

Overview of WCAG standards

WCAG guidelines provide a more specific framework for web accessibility. These standards focus on four main principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. WCAG provides detailed criteria for ensuring that web content can be easily accessed by individuals with different disabilities.

Designing an Accessible Online Course

Considerations for course design

When designing an accessible online course, it is essential to consider the needs of all learners. This includes providing clear instructions, using consistent layouts, and organizing content in a logical manner. Additionally, using plain language and avoiding jargon can make the course more accessible to all students.

Creating accessible navigation

Navigation is a critical aspect of online course accessibility. It is important to ensure that navigation menus are clear, consistent, and easy to use. Providing skip navigation links and breadcrumb trails can help users quickly navigate through the course content, especially for those who rely on screen readers.

Ensuring color contrast for visually impaired

Color contrast is another important consideration in accessible online course design. It is crucial to ensure that text and important elements have sufficient contrast with the background. This helps individuals with visual impairments to read and understand the content more easily.

Using headings and subheadings

Headings and subheadings play a vital role in online course accessibility. They help users navigate through the content and understand its structure. It is important to use proper heading tags (e.g., H1, H2, H3) in the correct hierarchical order to ensure screen readers can interpret the content correctly.

Captioning and transcripts for multimedia content

When including multimedia content, such as videos or audio recordings, it is crucial to provide captions or transcripts. This ensures that individuals with hearing impairments can access the information presented in the multimedia format. Captions and transcripts also benefit learners who prefer reading or have cognitive disabilities.

Teaching an Accessible Online Course

Tips for teaching students with disabilities

When teaching an online course, it is important to consider the needs of students with disabilities. Providing clear communication, offering multiple means of engagement, and allowing flexibility in assignments and assessments can help create an inclusive learning environment for all students.

Providing accommodations

It is essential to provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities. This may include offering extended time for assignments or exams, providing accessible course materials, or allowing for alternative formats. Collaboration with disability support services can help ensure that appropriate accommodations are implemented.

Collaborating with disability support services

Working closely with disability support services can be beneficial in promoting accessibility in online courses. These services can provide valuable insights and guidance regarding accommodations, accessibility resources, and strategies for creating an inclusive learning experience for all students.

Meeting ADA Compliance in Learning Management Systems

Evaluating the accessibility of your learning management system

When delivering online courses, it is essential to ensure that the learning management system (LMS) used is accessible. This includes evaluating the LMS for compliance with ADA and WCAG guidelines. Checking for features such as keyboard accessibility, compatibility with screen readers, and support for alternative text options is vital.

Utilizing accessibility features

Most modern learning management systems offer built-in accessibility features. These features enable instructors to create accessible content and provide tools for students with disabilities to customize their learning experience. It is important to familiarize yourself with these features and utilize them to ensure compliance with accessibility standards.

Looking Ahead: Future Trends in Online Course Accessibility

Anticipated changes in ADA compliance

As technology continues to advance, there may be anticipated changes in ADA compliance requirements. It is essential for instructors and course designers to stay updated with the latest regulations and guidelines to ensure continued accessibility for online courses.

Upcoming WCAG revisions

WCAG standards are periodically revised to keep up with technological advancements and emerging accessibility needs. Keeping an eye on upcoming revisions and updates can help educators stay ahead in creating and maintaining accessible online course content.

Key Takeaways for Accessible Online Course Design

With some planning and effort, you can create online learning experiences accessible to all. Follow these best practices:

  • Commit to meeting ADA and WCAG Level AA standards at minimum
  • Conduct accessibility audits to locate issues early when easier to address
  • Provide captions, transcripts, and text alternatives for multimedia
  • Check color contrast, navigation, and compatibility with assistive technology
  • Offer customizable course interfaces to adapt to student needs
  • Provide equally effective text-based alternatives where necessary
  • Publish an accessibility statement documenting your policies and progress
  • Collaborate with institutional disability support services for expertise and efficiencies
  • Utilize tools that help automate and manage compliance

Accessibility opens up online learning to millions more students. While regulations mandate minimums, striving for inclusion ultimately makes courses better for all.

Ensuring ADA and WCAG compliance is essential in creating accessible online courses. By understanding the guidelines and principles of accessibility, designing courses with accessibility in mind, teaching with inclusivity, and utilizing accessible learning management systems, educators can provide equal access to education for all learners. As we look to the future, it is important to stay informed about changes in ADA compliance and upcoming revisions to WCAG standards to ensure continued accessibility in online learning environments.

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By Dani Davis

Dani Davis is the pen name of the writer of this blog with more 15 years of constant experience in Content marketing and informatics product, e-commerce niche.

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