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Accessible Course Materials

What are Accessible Course Materials?

From the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials for Learning: Accessible educational materials (AEM) are print- and technology-based educational materials, including printed and electronic textbooks and related core materials that are designed or enhanced in a way that makes them usable across the widest range of learner variability, regardless of format (e.g., print, digital, graphic, audio, video).

Accessibility Standards at UVM

From UVM’s Accessibility Policy [PDF] Statement: The University has adopted federally recognized accessibility standards for information and communication technology (ICT), including WCAG 2.0 AA for web accessibility. Read about WCAG 2.0 AA standards (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). From the UVM AAOE: The University of Vermont is committed to maintaining an accessible and welcoming environment for individuals with disabilities. 

Brightspace Ally

If you are using Brightspace, you will have access to Ally, a built-in tool that analyzes all of the files in your course. The Ally tool:

Ally will let you know if your files are accessible and includes an Ally Course Report, which provides an overall percentage of accessibility for your entire course. More information about Ally can be found here.

How to Improve Accessibility of
PDFs, Word documents, PowerPoints, and images

Below is a list of tips and resources to guide you in improving the accessibility of your course content.

PDF Accessibility Tips

1. PDF: Make Sure Your File is Readable Text (not an image of text).

PDF documents are technically quite complex. The document itself can have two layers: 1) the layer you see and, if it is a searchable PDF file, 2) the layer that contains the text that will be searched. Since the visible layer is just an image, a screen reader cannot read it—it can only read the searchable layer. Documents should be OCRed if possible. The resulting PDF from the OCRing process is also Tagged.

One way to OCR a document is to upload it to Brightspace and then choose the Ally Alternative Formats feature to create an OCRed PDF document. This must be done from the Course Admin > Content area of Brightspace and only works with documents that have been scanned in from a paper version using a scanner or multi-function printer.

The Center for Academic Success also offers a conversion service for image-based materials to text-based materials. Submit the form here for this conversion:

OCR Conversion Form

2. PDF: Add Headings and Other Tags

Headings and other tags are best edited through Adobe Acrobat Pro. Copies of Acrobat Pro are available on certain library computers. The multimedia lab on the first floor of Howe Library has computers with Acrobat Pro installed.

This article from Adobe will guide you through the adding and repairing of tags.

3. PDF: Add Alternate Text for Images/Figures

4. PAVE PDF Checker

The PAVE PDF Checker will check your PDF for accessibility issues and attempt to correct some of them. PAVE stands for PDF Accessibility Validation Engine.

Here are the steps for using PAVE as excerpted from their website:
Please note: The maximum allowed file size is 5 megabytes.

  1. Upload your PDF document to PAVE.
  2. PAVE will make the automatic corrections.
  3. Simply make the remaining corrections yourself in PAVE.
  4. Now you can download the accessible PDF document. The PDF document will remain on the PAVE server for a maximum of three weeks unless you delete it manually beforehand.

Word Document Accessibility Tips

1. Word: Use Styles, Especially Headings

Word automatically applies a style to every segment of text in your document. A style is an editable collection of formatting commands. By default, Word applies the style it calls “Normal” to everything, but to improve accessibility, styles should be added. This will enable a visually impaired person using a screen reader to toggle through topic headings and choose what to read. Otherwise, with no headings, if they want to review something at the end of a document, the screen reader can’t skip to that subsection but has to read everything from the beginning.

It is easy to apply the correct headings or other styles provided by Word. If you want to change how any style appears, you can easily modify it.

Typically, the H1 (Heading 1) style is applied to the document’s title, so it will appear once in the document. All main topic subheadings can be assigned the H2 (Heading 2) style. If there is a third level of subheadings, they would be assigned H3 (Heading 3), and so on.

Type and leave your cursor in the main heading. Go to the Styles pane (Mac: far right of the Home tab; Windows: the tiny drop-down arrow below the pre-set Styles on the Home tab), click the drop-down menu for the Heading 1 (or appropriate) style, and choose Modify.

In the window that opens up, choose your font, font size, font weight, alignment, etc. If you want to set space before or after the Heading, click the Format button, choose Paragraph, and set space before/space after. (Note: the size is measured in points; 72 pts = 1 inch high)

2. Word: Give Images Alternate Text Descriptions

Ally looks for alt-text for any image in a document or web page. However, Word provides two boxes for

Alt-text: Title and Description. Most screen readers only pay attention to the Alt-text: Description box, so Ally does not require that you add text to the Alt-text: Title box.

To find it, double-click the picture to find the Format Picture menu (or right-click or ctrl-click the picture) and look for Format Picture. Find the Alt-text area (on a Mac, it’s under the icon with a 4-headed arrow) and fill in a Description.

Descriptions should be short, contextual, and not repeat information that is already in a caption—in other words, imagine a screen reader reading the description: is it unnecessarily repeating information that it has already read? Is it reading a description that has nothing to do with why the image is there or what function it serves?

3. Word: Add a Document Title in the 'Secret' Title Location

Mac desktop client: Go to File > Properties, click the Summary tab, and add your Title
Windows desktop client: Go to File > Info, and look at the Properties area to the right. Click and edit the existing title. Or click the drop-down menu for Properties, choose Advanced Properties > Summary, and type the title in the Title box.
Word for the web: Document properties are not supported online; however, when settings are entered in the Word desktop client when students download the file from Teams (Sharepoint), the accessibility settings will be preserved.

4. Word: Add Headers to Tables

If your document has tables and the top row is meant to be a header row, you can tell Word to mark it as such. It is a two-step process:

  • Click inside the table’s header row and choose the Table Layout tab, then “Repeat Header Rows”
  • Click anywhere in the table and in the Table Design tab, check the box for “Header Row”

If you paste in a link and don’t change the link ‘title,’ the screen reader will read the entire URL aloud. Here are two examples:
Smart way: Read this article: “Fragonard painting ‘forgotten’ by its owners sells for $9 million.”
Wrong way: Read this article: http://www.cnn.com/style/article/fragonard-philosopher-reading-auction-scli-intl/index.html
The latter example is wrong because screen readers will often scan a document for links and read them aloud. Some URLs are very long and also don’t necessarily explain what is on the page, so it’s better to use a smart link.

PowerPoint Accessibility Tips

1. Powerpoint: Choose the Right Template

PowerPoint comes with themes and templates that have been approved as accessible. You can find these by searching “accessible” when choosing from the templates library.

Click here to access accessible templates Microsoft offers for PowerPoint and other Office products

2. PowerPoint: Choose the Right Slide Layout

When you use “New Slide” and choose a “Title and Content” or “Title Only” format, PowerPoint will create a special title box. This is not the same as double-clicking on a slide and typing your title into a regular textbox. The Title box has special functions and will be treated differently when using the Accessibility Checker. Titles are treated by screenreaders as a Table of Contents, so the person reading the PPT can skim through several slides without having to read each one. Titles also indicate to the screenreader which object on the slide should be read first (see reading order for reference).

3. PowerPoint: Check Reading Order of Slides

You may think that a screenreader reads a slide from top to bottom. It doesn’t. As you may have seen, you can put objects on a slide and then ask PowerPoint to move some objects “forward” or “backward. This is because slides are built-in layers—the first thing you put on a slide becomes the base layer, and then each successive object is layered on top of that. In most slides, we create the title first, then add text boxes and images after that. So, a screen reader will end up reading the title last because it is the first layer that was created—hence it is on the bottom of the stack.

4. PowerPoint: Add Alternative Text for Images

Descriptions should be short, contextual, and do not repeat information that is already in a caption—in other words, imagine a screenreader reading the description aloud: is it unnecessarily repeating information that it has already read? Is it reading a description that has nothing to do with why the image is there or what function it serves?
If you have graphical images that are only there for decoration, there should be a “Mark as Decorative” checkbox in the Alt Text panel.

Image Accessibility Tips

1. Images: Add descriptions, or 'Alt Tags'

Add Alternative Text (descriptions) for Images:

  • For Mac: Right-click the picture and look for Format Picture. Find the Alt-text area under the icon with a 4-headed arrow and fill in a description.
  • For Windows: Ctrl-click the picture and look for Format Picture. Enter a description in the Alt-text area.

2. Distinguish Decorative Images

Any decorative images in any type of document need to be marked as such. There is often a “Mark as decorative” button to check off to do this.


Accessibility: UVM Academic Support Programs:


www.webaim.org: information, training, resources, guidelines, and standards for Web accessibility

Microsoft Accessibility Articles

Cheat Sheet

A one-page Cheat Sheet PDF on creating accessible content from the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE)

Updated on June 18, 2024

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