14 Questions for an Ed Tech Web Accessibility Expert

October 14, 2015 BY EMILY GRIFFIN
Updated: May 31, 2022

Web accessibility expert Janet Sylvia returned for another 3Play Media webinar this year titled 10 Tips for Creating Accessible Online Course Content. After her presentation, Janet answered questions from the audience. Watch the video recording below or read on for a condensed version of the webinar Q&A.

How do you suggest faculty get started with web accessibility?

    • JANET SYLVIA: First, add an accessibility statement to your syllabus and your course homepage. This opens the door for communication with faculty and potential students about any possible concerns of accessibility in your online course content.

Next, go through the Section 508 checklist and select the easiest things to accomplish. This will vary by instructor and content.

For some, it might be descriptive hyperlinks. For others, it might be adding heading structure to their Word documents. But either way, begin with what’s easiest for you.

Most of the techniques are fairly simple to learn, and you’ll be building new habits in no time.

Do you have any recommendations for working with faculty who insist that it is not their job to make their courses accessible?

    • JANET SYLVIA: That does happen frequently. What may work best is to refer the faculty member to the director of equal opportunity office, or campus disability resource center.

Other administrators will reinforce the message that they’re required to do this, and then you can let them know that you’re there to help them implement accessibility. You can also send them links to accessibility statements for your college or university.

Who should be ultimately responsible for ADA compliance?

    • JANET SYLVIA: To be clear, ADA compliance is different from Section 508 compliance.

On a college campus, the ADA coordinator tends to be an equal opportunity director. Sometimes that same person is a Section 508 coordinator, too; sometimes a campus may not have a 508 coordinator, and it’s something that people need to do on their own.

In Microsoft Word, should you use the H1 style instead of the Title style?

Use the H1 Style in word instead of Title for the title of your document.
    • JANET SYLVIA: Yes, definitely use the H1 heading for your document title. Even though Word provides many styles, it doesn’t mean all of them should be used for accessibility. The Title style is not technically a heading, so it won’t be read by a screen reader as such.

For example, when you check the styles menu in Word, you’ll notice there’s emphasis, there’s intense emphasis, and there’s subtle emphasis. The only one that you should use is emphasis.

For decorative images, can you use alt text that reads something like “decorative image, yellow tulips.” Or is the null tag better?

To reduce audio fatigue, always use the null tag (“”) for alt text in images that are purely decorative.
    • JANET SYLVIA: The null tag is always better for decorative image alt text.

Individuals who use read-aloud software or screen reader software frequently experience what’s called ‘audio fatigue.’ To prevent that, you want to limit what information they have to listen to. So if an image is purely decorative, it should be skipped completely.

If you are using HTML or PDF, use “” for null text.

In MS Word, you typically should leave the description field blank instead of using “”, only because Word will read it out as “begin quote, end quote,” and they’ll have to listen to it. They’ll know what that means, but they’ll have to listen to that unnecessarily.

Videos with audio should have captions, a transcript, and a video description. Is this a best practice recommendation or are all three required by law?

    • JANET SYLVIA: All three are part of the Section 508 requirements and

WCAG 2.0

    . And so, yes, all three are required to make your video fully accessible to deaf, blind, and deaf-blind students.

On a math test, if we describe an image of graph in alt text, we have technically answered the question. How would you make the image accessible to blind students without giving away the answer?

    • JANET SYLVIA: In that case, you would describe the visual appearance of the chart or the graph without interpreting the results. And you can find good examples of this at the

Diagram Center website

    • .

If you’re using a chart or a graph on a web page, you may want to provide an interpretation of the data so students will learn how to interpret. But if it’s on a quiz or a homework assignment, you only want to describe the visual appearance of the chart or the graph so that the student can draw inference themselves.

How do you recommend instructional technologists reach faculty to discuss accessibility? It’s not the hottest topic for a workshop….

    • JANET SYLVIA: Well, that can be true. But if you offer a workshop, people will come.

What I’ve noticed, specifically with faculty on a university campus, is once they understand the difference between accessibility and disability, and that accessibility is their responsibility, they’re often devastated that they haven’t been doing it all along.

Faculty by nature want to share information with students so they can further their education. Once they realize that it is their responsibility, faculty have always been very open and receptive.

To gain momentum, focus on the individuals who are most receptive to build up a base of support. Then they can become accessibility champions among their peers.

Can tables be accessible?

    • JANET SYLVIA: Tables can be made accessible. Depending on the technology you use or the software you use to create the table, tables are best for displaying data accessibly.

Word does not allow you to provide column headers, so you should only use very simple tables.

You can create accessible tables using HTML. If you use a learning management system, it should have an
HTML editor. You can create accessible tables that way, and also in PDF format.

In general, you should not have nested tables, which is like a table within a table. You should break them up into several smaller, individual tables.

Should you not use videos if closed captioning is not available at your institution?

    • JANET SYLVIA: In California at least, if you have an online course in a password-protected environment, you have provided an accessibility statement, and no student has responded saying that they need captioning, then captioning is not required.

Also, if the video will only be used for a single semester– not repeated use, but only a single semester– then, for California, you don’t have to provide captioning.

Now at the same time, if a student registers late and they request captioning, you’ll have to provide captioning for that content in a timely manner.

Some faculty have found video databases online with a video-on-demand service whose videos are already captioned. Lynda.com has videos that are captioned. So it’s possible to use those if you don’t have the funding to provide captioning for original content.

Captioning and audio description can be expensive to produce. How do you prioritize them?

Look at metrics for which videos are watched more frequently and recently, and use that data to prioritize which ones to caption first.
    • JANET SYLVIA: Right, they can be expensive and they should be professionally done.

I would like to just mention in the recent Harvard and MIT lawsuit with the National Association of the Deaf, one of the concerns with captions for their online course content was accuracy. You need to be sure that when you do have captioning done, it is done by professionals so that the captions are indeed accurate.

Now, whenever a faculty member receives grant funding for a project, ask them to write in a line item to ensure that all the content created under that grant is captioned and made accessible.

To prioritize what needs to be captioned, you would typically check the most recent access to the video itself. I worked with a faculty member who said he had 100 videos that needed to be captioned. We looked at the access statistics, and they had not been accessed in almost 10 years! And so, there was no need to prioritize captioning things that people aren’t actually using.

Any accessibility recommendations for people using Google Docs?

    JANET SYLVIA: No. As of 2014, about half of Google apps were accessible and the other half were not. If it’s not accessible, it should not be used.

Should faculty have some working knowledge of HTML code when designing courses, or should they rely on tech support?

    JANET SYLVIA: Many of the online course environments have a built-in HTML editor that’s very simple to use. It’s almost like creating a Word document, and then the HTML editor puts the code in for you automatically. If that’s the case, the faculty don’t need to know HTML.

Does an institution have a responsibility to require students to create accessible documents if the instructor is going to use peer review?

    • JANET SYLVIA: I would just say it would be a wonderful learning experience to teach those students how to create accessible documents. It isn’t that difficult. We actually have faculty at a university I worked at that they were teaching future instructional technologists, and included in their program an accessibility component. So when they get out in the real world, they have that experience with them.

You could do the same for students in your class. You could provide them with the Section 508 checklist, for example, and require them to create accessible content. It would be a great learning experience and help to ensure that individuals going out into the world after their degree have experience with accessibility.

For more expert tips from Janet Sylvia, check out:

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