Accessible AND Inclusive Course Documents

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I recently read an Association for Talent Development article, Should Our Learning Content be Accessible or Inclusive? What caught my attention in the article was the analogy the author, Susi Miller, used for describing the difference between accessible and inclusive.

“…a person who uses a wheelchair [is] having a meal out with friends. When they arrive together at the restaurant, the majority of the group is greeted warmly at the door and led through to their table. Meanwhile, the person who uses a wheelchair is directed to the accessible entrance. She makes the journey alone, down a dimly lit alleyway, passing rubbish bins with a group of smokers congregated around them. Her journey continues through the kitchen, where the chefs are busy preparing food, and finally passes the toilets after which she meets up with her friends again.

It’s an informative visualization of how the journey of the person who uses a wheelchair can be technically accessible but not inclusive. Her experience doesn’t make her feel welcome and valued, and it certainly isn’t equivalent to the rest of the friends in her group.”

This notion of accessible vs inclusive, reminded me of a situation described to me by a Colgate student. This student has a disability and benefits from listening to text read aloud. The student uses an app on their computer which converts text to synthesized speech, but the app only works if the document is available as searchable text rather than as an image of text – which is the case for many photocopied PDF documents. This student has taken the time to create a process for converting course readings into a format that works with the text-to-speech app, but it still takes on average one and a half hours every week to convert course documents into usable formats. That is time that the student doesn’t have to spend learning, socializing, networking, volunteering, resting or otherwise engaged in activities that their peers may be engaged in.

The student concluded their remarks by saying “Obviously, in a perfect world, all readings would be automatically available in accessible formats, but since this isn’t the case, these are the ways I’ve found to get different kinds of readings (from online textbooks, physical pages, PDFs, and webpages) into text-to-speech accessible formats.“

In this case, Colgate has provided the technology for that student to access their course materials, but is that equitable? Is it inclusive? Is this student feeling excluded or otherwise burdened by the extra work needed to make course materials usable in order to participate and complete the assignment when many of her peers have immediate access to those same materials?

How can instructors and their support staff make course materials more accessible and inclusive for all students?

One way is for faculty and staff to use the same technology this student uses to make course readings and other text-based content usable for all students. SensusAccess is a tool that can convert inaccessible documents to accessible, searchable formats which benefits all students. The steps below outline the process for PDF documents.

First, determine whether the document is searchable by opening the document in the browser or in Adobe and using the Search function to search for a simple word like “the”. If the search is successful, the document is likely to be readable with assistive technologies and there is no need for further action. If the search yields no matches, then the document is likely just an image of text rather than real, searchable text. In this case, use SensusAccess to create a searchable version of the document to replace the original document you make available to students.

  • Step 1: Go to the SensusAccess document conversion page and follow the instructions to upload the document.
  • Step 2: Select Accessibility conversion when prompted for the output format.
  • Step 3: Specify the Target format. Tagged PDF (image over text) is suggested.
  • Step 4: Enter your email address and submit. The converted document will be delivered as a link or an attachment to an email.

One caveat – because this is an automated process, if the document scan is significantly skewed or blurry or has a lot of hand mark-up, SensusAccess may not be able to correctly analyze the text to create a usable document. In this case, it is best to search for a more readable copy or rescan the original document to create a cleaner copy.

For future photocopied documents, you may be able to avoid using this conversion process by using the OCR (Optical Character Recognition) feature on the copier which will create a searchable text document rather than an image of text.

If you have questions, please contact the ITS Service Desk at or 315-228-7111.

Sharon Trerise