How to prepare your accessible syllabus

Beyond what accessibility is and means, it’s crucial to know how Microsoft Word works and how to use it to intentionally create (as well as maintain) accessible content in your syllabus.

Isn’t my digital syllabus (Word, PowerPoint, PDF, HTML) already accessible?

Unfortunately, no. While digital content can certainly offer flexibility, it is not inherently accessible. Accessibility must be applied knowledgeably and intentionally through all stages of a document’s development.

While there are various accessibility guides and checkers built-in to various products, they are and cannot be the sole determiner of the adequate accessibility of a document. For documents that will ultimately be presented as PDFs on a UNLV website or web-based course, the Adobe Acrobat Pro DC’s definition of an accessible document, including tags and corrected reading order, is the standard for accessibility (i.e. tags must exist, reading order reviewed and no errors or “fails”).

The UNLV Office of Accessibility Resources provides various trainings, including its Foundations of Accessibility training, to prevent vocabulary, examples and skills for the application of accessible settings in Microsoft Word and in Google-/GrackleDocs.

Accessible syllabus templates (Microsoft Word)

Toward the end of this page, we supply three accessible Word templates for you to use for your improved syllabus.

Hierarchical Document Design

Microsoft Word provides many tools that enable and support quick information retrieval, particularly in a well-designed syllabus. These include:

  • Header styles which divide content into sections or chunks and create hierarchy.
  • Numbered lists and bulleted lists organize content.
  • Accessible tables present data in a predictable format.

Text

If you are copying text from an existing version of your syllabus, make sure that you copy and paste as text only, without previous formatting. Then add the headings, list settings, links, colors, and other features described on this page with accessibility in mind.

Remember that computers are not typewriters; please refrain from using the Return or Enter key to create gaps between headings and/or content. Instead, employ the built-in Paragraph tool to customize the gaps above and/or below your headings as well as above and/or below your paragraphs, lists, etc.

Headings

Headings are not merely isolated lines of text which happen to have been made larger and bolder. Accessible headings have a style applied to them to merge “look” and “role”. Headings or headers also represent a sequence or hierarchy, with “Heading 1” being the top most rung, followed by “Heading 2”. These are not just labels; one may not just start with a Heading 3 style because they like the “look”.

Lists

If you must create lists, please ensure that you are using the correct option for the type of lists. Bulleted lists are for randomly located collections of items. 

  • Red
  • Green
  • Purple

Numbered or ordered lists are for collections where order or importance are key.

  1. Gather ingredients
  2. Mix ingredients
  3. Pour into baking dish
  4. Place in oven to bake
  5. Remove from oven
  6. Serve and enjoy

Alternative (alt) Text to Support Images

Alternative text gives a verbal description of an image to those using a variety of assistive technologies, including, but certainly not limited to individuals who are blind. Consider how you might describe an image to a colleague over the phone, or at a time when showing the photo was not practical, what might you say about it?

Some tips for writing alternative text:

  • Keep descriptions short and to the point.  Include the most important details first, in case the entire description is not read.
  • If there is writing in an image, include that text verbatim in the description.
  • There is no need to write “This is an image of…” or “This picture shows…”
  • If an infographic is particularly dense, consider describing or interpreting the image in the body text of the document.

An Example: The UNLV Logo might have alternative text as simple as “UNLV” or “UNLV Logo”.

Note: Sometimes, software offers a checkbox to mark an image as “Decorative”. Use this sparingly to “hide” decorative elements from assistive technologies.  It is useful for things like letterhead, background textures, and divider lines that are not part of the narrative.

Hyperlinks

Links should be titled with a plain-english description of where the address leads. Right-click any link and edit the text to display to say something like Purchase your textbook instead of simply pasting a URL into a document, or using a generic phrase like “Click here”.

Use of Color and Color Contrast

Color and contrast is often overlooked, but affects a substantial portion of the population who may not use any additional assistive technology.  Strong contrast between text and its background is important in the body of the document, as well as when infographics, highlights, and text boxes are present.  Use a Color Contrast Checker to verify that the colors you would like to use meet guidelines.

Note: There are often two sets of Color Contrast tests in accessibility checkers, Level AA and Level AAA.  Level AA is sufficient for use at UNLV, but you can refer to Level AAA for even better visibility.

Accessible Tables 

Tables present a major barrier to accessibility, often because they are used incorrectly.  A table is a good way to present structured data or information, but is not suitable for creating borders and text boxes, for creating columns, or for simply laying out a page.  Other layout tools exist for this type of content.  If your desired layout relies on a number of blank cells or entire rows, you may find that a table is not the best method, or that it should be split into multiple tables.

Where a table is required, give your table a title, or caption, to introduce the contents, and ensure that the first row, which contains a label for each column, is marked as the “header row”.  

Do not use an image, or screenshot, of a table.

As you can see, we are saying that “Tables are OK”. The issue is how well your authoring tool, like Microsoft Word, supports features for accessibility. Microsoft Word, unfortunately, cannot do merged cells for accessibility.

Additional things to consider

  • The delivery of a Word Document or PDF of a syllabus, is not usually required for teaching a course.  Using the “Syllabus” tool in Canvas, for example, you can deliver the entire syllabus content in HTML, without the need for students to download any additional attachments. 
  • While Accessibility Checkers are available, please do not totally rely on them. They do not catch everything of concern and the point of making documents accessible is to ensure that the assistive technology that you are building toward is able to process any and all content; the intentional application of these structures correctly is paramount so human oversight is the last word.

Download one of the available accessible templates

Template A: Basic no-table layout.  Accessible headings/header styles applied for typical sections. Grading scale list formatted for accessibility. Additional starter second-level heading starters at the bottom of the document.

Template B: All of the starter content from Template A. Additions include: UNLV Policies start section, Course Agenda/Schedule heading with accessible table supported by a secondary heading plus narrative.

Template C:All of the starter content from Template B, preceded by an accessible table for course information (class times, locations, etc.).

Beyond the syllabus text: multimedia

Interactive activities, audio and video files, and other multimedia content is outside the scope of a syllabus tutorial, but these things have accessibility requirements of their own. 

For audio files, be sure to source a human-corrected transcript to present alongside them. For pre-recorded videos, opt for human-corrected closed captioning. Auto-generated transcripts or captions for pre-recorded content is not acceptable as accessible content.

Note: Auto-generated captions often have no capitalization, punctuation, and will generally have incorrect transcriptions, so you may need to edit and correct auto-generated captions for videos.  In a learning environment, the content of captions should be vetted by a human being.

When sourcing interactive content, like activities, fillable forms, surveys and games, for a course, look for accessibility information from the publisher.  Often the author will have an Accessibility Statement you can find from an online search, and include the results of Accessibility testing in the form of an Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR) or Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) 

Accessible Syllabus Trainings

We have these 90-minute trainings (online-only via WebEx or in-person) available for registration.

  • Tuesday, March 8, 10 am to 11:30 am, WebEx (Highlighting GA/GTA/GRA/Student Employee assistance)
  • Friday, March 11, 10 am to 11:30 am, WebEx
  • Monday, March 14 (during Spring Break), 10 am to 11:30 am, WebEx
  • Monday, March 21 (after Spring Break), 10 am to 11:30 am, WebEx
  • Wednesday, March 23, 10 am to 11:30 am, WebEx
  • Thursday, March 24, 10 am to 11:30 am, WebEx (Highlighting GA/GTA/GRA/Student Employee assistance)

These focus on Microsoft Word as the authoring tool for syllabus creation and maintenance. Other tools that support accessibility settings might benefit from this training.

Unless noted specifically as in-person, these trainings will be synchronous, WebEx sessions (no recordings provided).

If you have at least one other colleague who can do a training along with you, we can discuss a custom scheduled training online in January, please email accessibilityresourceteam-request@unlv.edu with some dates and times for a 90-minute and we will see what our schedules allow.

Note for those who completed the Accessible Syllabus training in Summer and Fall 2021

Due to factors not under the Office of Accessibility Resources' control, the disbursement of the stipend will be delayed into Spring 2022