Best Practice

Accessible Online Learning

Written by Linda Doran & Brian Butler, Disability Support Service

Proponents of online learning have long championed the accessibility of online learning.  There is certainly the potential for online learning to serve as a vehicle for broadening the reach of traditional higher education offerings. Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, noted that ‘the power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless if disability is an essential aspect’. You can have the most thoughtfully developed curriculum with all components constructively aligned but all of this sterling work would be undermined entirely by a failure to follow accessibility guidelines. 

When courses and programmes are built using poorly constructed documents and resources without due attention paid to format and form much of the learning potential goes unfulfilled. It is a great shame when staff spend a lot of their valuable time developing learning resources that due to accessibility issues will not reach all learners now or in the future. Repurposing non-compliant content is much more time consuming than following some easy guidelines from the outset and incorporating them into your workflow.

There are some excellent resources available that serve as guide and checklist for accessibility:

It is important to note that adhering to these standards does not take much more time at all and can immeasurably improve the learning experience of all students in UCC – on campus and online.

In this blogpost we will discuss general accessibility good practice guidelines around font option, size and colour contrast. These guidelines apply to all documents. We will also show three specific examples of accessibility guideline implementation in using Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint and Adobe Acrobat Reader DC.


Microsoft Word
Microsoft provide a good guide to accessibility good practice and instructions on how to use the Microsoft Word Accessibility Checker
When creating Word documents ensure you use Clear Print guidelines as follows:

  • Use a clear font such as Arial, Verdana, Trebuchet or Tahoma.
  • Use 14 point font if possible, but not less than 12 point font.
  • Do not use italics, underline or block capitals.
  • To emphasise use bold or semi-bold.
  • Keep text simply laid out on the page and preferably left justified.
  • Avoid right justification.
  • Do not break up text with diagrams or pictures.
  • Where images are used always use Alternative Text descriptions. Click here to view a handy guide about alt text
  • Ensure proper contrast e.g. black on white, black on light yellow.


Microsoft PowerPoint

Microsoft have developed guidelines and tools to help make PowerPoint more accessible.

Microsoft PowerPoint is used widely across University College Cork as an aid when presenting to staff and students. This section aims to help staff and students to create a fully accessible presentation with easy to use guidelines. These guidelines should be introduced and maintained for all presentations irrespective of who the presentation is aimed at.

When creating Microsoft PowerPoint presentations ensure you:

  • Use short concise ideas employing bullet points and lists where appropriate.
  • Ensure every bullet point or item in a list ends with punctuation (e.g. a full stop, semi colon or comma).
  • Ensure the text is a minimum size of 24 point. Write no more on a slide than you would on a postcard.
  • Choose the slide layout appropriate to your requirements.
  • Avoid blank slides.
  • Choose a high colour contrast between your background and text, but avoid black on white.
  • When using images and tables always include an alternative text description. Click here to view a handy guide about alt text
  • Adapt your colours to your venue (if you are familiar with the venue). It is easier to read dark text on a light background in a bright venue and dark backgrounds with a light text in dark venues. Apply bold to text if using a dark background.
  • Provide a text transcript of the audio-visual material within the notes field of the slide.


Adobe Acrobat & PDFs

A PDF document allows limited editing of the document once it is created and maintains the predefined layout of text and images. Most PDF documents are created via Microsoft Word and then exported to Adobe Acrobat.

Converting from Microsoft Word:

First, follow the accessibility guidelines for Microsoft Word documentsThen convert using Adobe Acrobat Professional to ensure accessibility features are maintained.

Converting from a Scanned Document:

Ensure that you use optical character recognition software (OCR).  When scanning make sure to select ‘searchable PDF’ as the output type if that option is available. If it is not available using Adobe Acrobat Professional DC (commercial software available from Micromail) is recommended. Adobe provide a detailed guide on how to do this

Use Adobe Acrobat Professional DC Accessibility Checker
If you have a copy of Acrobat Professional DC then you can avail of a useful accessibility checker that reviews a document for alt text for images and headings etc. More information on this feature can be found at this link


Using a graphic designer for a publication:

Raise the University College Cork accessibility policy as applied to PDF documents with the designer.