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Teaching Using Canvas: Accommodations v. Accessibility

Accommodations v. Accessibility

You might assume, "If I have no students with documented disabilities, then I am off the hook here." Not the case! There are good reasons to implement practices to ensure accessibility, usability, and quality visual design that are more than accommodations for disabilities.

  • English as a Second Language students can benefit from captions.
  • Many people, hearing-impaired or not, prefer captions for reasons related to their social context, such as communal living or watching content while their children are asleep.
  • People who are color-blind typically do not seek accommodations.
  • Many students who relied on their K-12 system to recognize their disabilities and provide accommodations might not yet realize their college will not do the same.
  • Some students with disabilities try out self sufficiency and resist asking for the accommodations they had in high school.
  • Some students do not seek out accommodations based on beliefs they will be stigmatized.

Overall, it is good practice to provide multiple ways of viewing, consuming, and accessing content in your course.


Disability accommodations are specific, individualized changes to instructional materials, settings, and approaches that are required for students with documented disabilities. A common type of accommodation for learning disabilities is, for example, extended time for completing assignments and/or taking exams.

The law that governs accommodations is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), specifically Sections 508 and 504. Section 508 mandates that all electronic and information technology receiving federal funds must be made accessible for those with disabilities or learning differences. Section 504 requires accommodations for those who have learning differences in higher education must receive any type of required accommodation to make learning equal to peers.


Accessibility is a more general term that applies to many people and not only those with documented disabilities. In the context of designing courses using Canvas, accessibility means making it possible for all students, regardless of physical or developmental impairment, to use all course materials and tools. Designing for accessibility from the beginning will save you time and stress when a disability accommodation is necessary. A course is accessible to the degree that every student can get to, perceive, and navigate course content and assignments; submit assignments; and successfully use all course tools. Accessible design is often included under the larger umbrella of Universal Design for Learning, because it considers all possible users and is inclusive to everyone.

Accessibility of digital content is important because:

  • A significant number of people have disabilities that can make it difficult for them to take an online course. According to 2018 CDC estimates, one in four people have some kind of disability. 
  • Accessibility features benefit all students, not just those with documented disabilities or learning differences.

Types of Disabilities That Accessibility Speaks To

There are four major categories of disability or differences requiring different practices to ensure accessibility to digital content in your course. These disabilities or differences can be permanent or temporary, and may result from genetics, disease, injury, or age-related changes. 

Visual disabilities or differences include blindness, low vision, and color blindness. Individuals with visual differences may:

  • need to use the Immersive Reader in Canvas and the keyboard to access what's on a computer,
  • not be able to use a mouse,
  • not be able to tell one color from another, or
  • need to enlarge text and illustrations in order to see them.

Hearing disabilities or differences include partial and complete deafness. Individuals with hearing loss may not be able to hear the audio of a podcast, a voice-over in a PowerPoint, or the speech, music, or sound effects in a video. Students with hearing differences may:

  • need captioning of videos, or
  • ask for transcripts to be available for audio content.

Cognitive disabilities include learning disabilities or differences and other disorders that make individuals distracted or unable to focus on, process, or remember information. Individuals with cognitive disabilities may:

  • have trouble reading text or interpreting illustrations,
  • need to use a screen reader to help them understand text,
  • be confused by complex layouts or navigation schemes, or
  • have trouble focusing on or comprehending lengthy sections of text, audio, or video.

Motor disabilities include paralysis and limited fine or gross motor control. Individuals with motor disabilities may:

  • not be able to access content that requires a mouse,
  • need to use assistive technologies like head wands and voice-recognition software to access a course,
  • have a slow response time, or
  • become easily fatigued by movements that wouldn’t be tiring for most people.

A Sample Syllabus Statement

If you don't already include a statement about your commitment to accessibility and support of students needing accommodations in your syllabus, consider adding one. Here is a model:

"I strive to achieve accessibility for all people in my courses by providing material that works for students with disabilities, whether mental health, learning, chronic health, physical, hearing, vision, neurological, etc. I also encourage students to document their disabilities when doing so means that you may receive accommodations to support you in your learning. Contact the Disability Support Services office at UW-Superior or simply use their online Accommodate Request system."