Design for Accessibility With the Universal Design for Learning Process

Discover how to create a more accessible virtual learning environment by making your content ADA compliant and designing with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) process.

Grades K-12 20 min Resource by:
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When designing a virtual learning environment, keep a growth mindset and do your best. Everyone understands that you are working hard to support students and families while teaching virtually. Everything you have posted at this moment may not be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or designed with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) process. Take one step at a time. As you continue to grow in your digital teaching and learning knowledge and plan for the fall, you can actively make progress and start to create and design with accessibility in mind. Below are some great strategies and starting points for designing content that is ADA-compliant and uses the UDL process.

ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Compliance

It is required that educators provide accessible content for students with disabilities. When students are engaging in virtual learning, you still need to make accessible content for students and families. So what does this mean?

Students may use software that changes content into large print, braille, speech, symbols, or simpler language, and the resources posted virtually need to be able to work with this assistive technology. In addition, many students who may not have an identified disability might still need sufficient contrast of colors, enlarged text, access to simple text, or closed captions, and may have additional needs. For example, 8% of males have red-green color blindness, and many of them do not know it. Teachers need to be designing with accessibility in mind and also make students aware of accessibility tools and features, like the tools described in the Empowering Students With Accessibility Tools article.

Top 7 ADA Guidelines To Know

  1. Use alt text for all images and graphics.
  2. Add captions to videos and edit the captions to make sure they are accurate.
  3. Use informative link text. Do not use “click here,” “here,” or “link to” and do not just paste the URL.
  4. Tables are to be used for data, not for layout. Tables need both a header row and a caption.
  5. Fonts need to be easy to read.
    • It is best to use the default fonts and styles.
    • Make sure that text is not too small.
    • Don’t use color, bold, or underline as the only way to convey content.
  6. Use high color contrast.
    • Don’t add backgrounds and change font colors.
    • Try to avoid animation and flashing elements.
  7. Use accessibility checkers if they are available.

Top 5 ADA Habits to Practice

Once again, remember to take it one step at a time and start developing the following good habits when creating virtual content:

  1. Add a title to documents.
  2. Use heading styles to organize content and provide an outline.
  3. Add alt text to images and graphics.
  4. Use columns or lists to format (not tables).
  5. Make sure that the text you display for a hyperlink is logical.

Extend Your Learning

Here are additional resources to support you in creating and using ADA-compliant content:

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal Design for Learning can be used to create content and materials that work for all learners. When designing a lesson, you need to include instructions, materials, and resources that are absolutely essential for some students, beneficial to some students, and are not detrimental to any students. For example, closed captions may be necessary for some students, may benefit others, and are not detrimental to any students. According to UDL guidelines, you need to provide multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression for students. So how might we do this in a virtual learning environment? Look at some of the following suggestions and think about ways you can start to incorporate UDL as you are creating your virtual-learning environment.


  • Give students choices in how they complete activities, assignments, and assessments. Provide choices that allow all students to access content and demonstrate learning.
  • Make assignments, activities, and assessments relevant to your students.
  • Allow for different amounts of time and length of assignments, activities, and assessments.
  • Use applications that allow for options to increase or decrease sensory stimulation.
  • Provide supports for students developing understanding and extensions for students who already have a deep understanding of content.
  • Include ways for peers to collaborate. Here are a few examples of collaborative tools that are available:
  • If having students work in groups, provide assigned roles with clear expectations.
  • Communicate clear expectations in multiple formats.
    • You can use written text, video, pictures, etc.
  • Provide resources for dealing with frustration.
    • Create a virtual calming corner, with links to calming videos and strategies.


  • Model for students in different ways:
    • Live virtual teaching
    • Videos
    • Interactive presentations
  • Make sure that students have access to examples and/or guidelines.
  • Select applications and websites that allow students to adjust font size and contrasts while also being compatible with screen readers. Follow ADA guidelines as best as you can.
  • Teach and review content-specific vocabulary in different ways.
  • Post virtual anchor charts and provide clear expectations on how to access and use them.
  • Provide relevant graphics and background information.
    • Can students see themselves in the online resources you provide and/or share?
  • Encourage students to ask questions and provide clear instructions on how to ask questions and receive feedback.
  • Provide graphic organizers.

Action and Expression

  • Provide templates for students to access and use.
  • Incorporate the use of assistive technology.
  • Provide Sentence Stems when you can.
  • If possible, provide physical manipulatives or suggest the use of physical manipulatives that students may have access to at home. You can also provide virtual manipulatives, like the ones from the Toy Theater Virtual Manipulatives.
  • Have students set short-term and long-term goals and create time for students to check in with you, or other students, about their goals.
  • Record and communicate student progress. Create planned checkpoints during the day, week, and/or month.
  • Provide exemplars of projects, assessments, and assignments.
  • Communicate very clear instructions on how students are expected to engage in their virtual-learning environment. How do they ask for help? How should they collaborate with others? How do they contact the teacher?