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Community Member

How can I improve the accessibility of my readings and primary sources?

I teach a US history course that includes weekly readings (mostly scans from books I no longer have) and a very large packet of primary sources including transcripts of phone conversations, photocopies of 1970s newspapers, and partially censored national security archive material (attached). It is a requirement that students use these sources for their mid-semester task, a historical reconstruction based only on the sources in that packet. When I try to upload these files to Canvas, I am alerted that the Accessibility‌ is poor. How can I improve it?

6 Replies
Community Member

Hi Mia,

Do you have access to Adobe Acrobat? You could use the accessibility checker in Acrobat to make these documents more accessible. Or if you have access to an OCR program, you could convert these documents to a format where you could make the documents more accessible (like a Microsoft Word document).

Does your institution use Blackboard Ally by any chance? I found that with that you could use the "Alternative formats" option to convert these files to HTML and then open the HTML file in Word to reformat and make it accessible.

I hope these ideas helps!

Explorer II

Hi Mia, 

I work with small PDFs to make them more accessible. I outlined my process below and I recorded a video as I go through the steps. For a document this size there's more work, but if you have to make it happen...

1: Upload the PDF to my Google drive

2: Open with Google Docs (Images & Maps did not transfer)

3: Use Grackle extension for identifying accessibility issues. There is a free version My org purchased a subscription, but the free one might be useful

4: Copy and paste the images and maps (For images with lots of description [there is a 120 character limit] I create a separate accessible google doc and link that to the image/map)

I've linked the google doc I was demonstrating if it's helpful.

Be well,


Community Member

Mia, we are encouraging our instructors to do away with PDFs all together. OCR them. Then take that content and turn it into a Canvas Page. We have had some pretty great results from doing that. Yes, you might need to fidget with the content a bit to get it looking how you would like, but it helps greatly with accessibility.

After looking at that PDF of yours, I'm going to be honest with you. You will have to give up a lot of the air of mystery that comes with declassified document photocopies, in order to transmit the information to your students in an equitable manner. The visual artifacts alone are going to cause your score to drop dramatically, since they cause no end of trouble with screen readers.

Hi Aimee,

Thanks for the feedback. How can I translate the visual artefacts in an equitable way? I'm thinking not only of the maps and redacted content, but also handwritten notes on archive photocopies and scans of newspapers that show the space given to different news stories.

Hello Mia!

So when I say "visual artifacts" I mean those little spots and messy bits on the document that make it look like it's been photocopied several hundred times, not artifacts in a historical sense.

Maps are always tricky. You may want to discuss that with your Disabled Student Services department, to see how they would like to see that dealt with. Opinions vary on that topic. I personally like it when they are made available and are accompanied with a text description of why the map is important and what information students should gather from it. Not only does this help non-sighted students, but it helps all students have a greater understanding of the material.

As for the handwritten notes in margins, you need to decide which is more important, the historic information you wish to transmit, or the aesthetic. What you could do is place all of that information in a Page (after OCRing it) and then make the PDF available, but not required. Different schools have different rules about this. If for example, you are using Blackboard Ally for accessibility checks, it will mark you down for having that PDF in your files.

Thanks for your help Aimee - I'm now consulting with Learning Environments to figure it all out.