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Open Education: OER and Accessibility

A guide to open educational resources, open pedagogy, and the open ed movement at Gettysburg College

Why consider accessibility in OER?

Many faculty who are considering adopting, revising, and remixing open educational resources (OER) are doing so for their students--so that they can have access to high-quality learning materials without attached high prices. However, not all students access materials in the same way. Some have additional requirements due to a disability. By building in accessibility before you assign a text, you can make sure that these students have access to usable and useful materials on day one, the same day as non-disabled students. Open educational resources are especially suited to accessibility because they are adaptable. If they are not initially made accessible, you have the power to adapt them into a more suitable form.

Accessibility can be a complex topic, so let's explain it in this context. According to the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials, a textbook that is accessible would allow disabled students to "acquire the same information" as non-disabled students, "in an equally effective, equally integrated manner, with equivalent ease of use." So disabled students should not need to jump through additional hoops in order to get the information they need. Course materials should be structured with built-in accessibility, by considering the steps and resources below.

If this way of looking at accessibility seems confusing, you may be interested in considering the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines instead. These focus on a whole course's design rather than specifically on materials, but can still provide a good place to start.

In addition to making sure students can access your course materials, you may also want to consider how your course materials discuss disabled people. Looking at the Disability Language Style Guide may help you understand common concerns and preferences about disability language.

However you look at accessibility, it is important to note that it does not just improve the experience of disabled students. It also makes your course materials more available to students experiencing temporary impairments or situational difficulties. For example, captions are necessary for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students to access video material. However, captions can also be helpful for those with temporary hearing loss from illness, those who are learning the language of instruction, and those who are studying in a loud environment.

Accessibility in Practice


The following tips have been adapted to the guide to design for accessibility from the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials.

To make your textbook perceivable:

  • Ensure sufficient contrast between page and text.
  • Use additional cues with color when emphasizing or differentiating information, rather than using color alone.
  • Break up long blocks of test with lists and headings.
  • Provide plenty of spacing between lines of text.
  • Limit the number of fonts and styles used, and for body text, choose sans-serif options.
  • Use bold rather than italics or all caps for emphasis.
  • Use a proper baseline text size: 12 pt minimum for general use, 18 pt minimum for large print.

To make your textbook understandable:

  • Use consistent formatting and structure throughout the text. If your text has non-standard conventions, consider explaining them at the beginning.
  • Use plain language, and include a glossary for terms that are likely to be familiar.
  • Use the complete version of acronyms and abbreviations the first time they are used.
  • Indicate when foreign languages are being used.

More information specific to journals can be found in the Creating Accessible Content guide from the Public Knowledge Project.


The University of Minnesota identifies core skills that can be applied to creating more accessible web-based materials.

  • Provide alternative text for meaningful images, and descriptions for more complicated charts and graphs..
  • Use meaningful links, where viewers will know where they are headed without context.
  • Use lists, properly formatted, for ease of scanning and comprehension.
  • When tables are necessary, keep them simple and readable by screen readers.
  • Include text for video and audio materials, and audio descriptions for video materials.


The Council of Ontario Universities suggests the following guidelines for clear print:

  • Use black and white text in most circumstances. Colored text is only appropriate for titles, headlines, and highlighted material.
  • Leading between lines of text should be at least 25 percent greater than the point size, but not excessive. Exact size depends on the heaviness of the typeface used.
  • Use typefaces with medium heaviness.
  • Keep a wide space between letters rather than crowding; this is the default in Microsoft Word.
  • Seperate text into columns when possible.
  • Use wide binding margins or spiral bindings. Pages should be able to lay flat for use with vision aids.
  • Choose a paper finish that does not cause glare, such as matte or non-glossy.
  • Avoid complex background images, including watermarks.
  • Make covers easy to distinguish with clean but distinctive design.

Additional Resources


Accessible Learning Across the Lifespan (National Center on Accessible Educational Materials, video series)

Accessibility Toolkit 2nd Edition (BCcampus Open Education)

Inclusive Learning Design Handbook (Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University)

Five Steps to Plain Language (Center for Plain Language)

Web-Based Accessibility

The Accessible Image Sample Book (Benetech) shows options for creating accessible versions of complex images.

Ace by DAISY allows you to check EPUB files for publishing industry accessibility standards.

The Web Accessibility Guidelines handbook (Portland Community College) provides information on accessible materials in a variety of formats, such as D2L webpages, PowerPoints, and Google Docs. It also has specific information on math and science accessibility.

An article from Site Improve provides advice on accessible fonts online.

Print-Based Accessibility

Tips for Creating Accessible Print Materials (University of Nevada Reno) and Print Accessibility (Lansing Community College) give sets of general guidelines.

The American Council for the Blind has created Best Practices and Guidelines for Large Print.