By | May 3rd

Accessibility Training for Teachers: Rationale

One of the few undebatable benefits of online instruction is its ability to bring learning to underserved audiences. This advantage especially significant when materials are made available to learners whose disabilities and circumstances have restricted their full participation in higher education. As stated in an earlier post, there are legal and moral reasons to improve accessibility in our courses. Though most institutions have disability service offices, these offices are often stretched to their limit trying to support the growing number of digital classrooms. As such, it is often the faculty developer’s responsibility to ensure that the digital materials they provide are accessible. Due to the ambiguities of current Americans with Disabilities (ADA) legislation, as it relates to digital classrooms, universities often see financial and legal advantages in quietly leaving accessibility issues to their instructors. With this fact in mind, it is worth taking some time to examine one of digital accessibility’s “lowest hanging fruits”: Headers.

Headers & Header Tags:

headingWhen reading a new document (whether online or on paper), I start by skimming. Skimming helps me quickly see the covered topics, the areas of most interest, and where to find needed information. Bolded titles and text breaks provide the visual navigation cues I need to make quick information sorting possible. A blind or visually impaired learner provided with a document is unable to use these same signals. As such, visually impaired students often have to read entire documents before finding the specific information they want.

Headers and Screen Readers:

In digital files, headings/header tags are hierarchical indicators which allow learners, both the sighted and visually impaired, to scan for relevant information without digesting an entire document. Technology never automatically applies header tags (i.e. Word will not automatically add these for you). A files’ preparer must intentionally and thoughtfully place headers. Headers are called “headings” in MS Word. Headers are called “header tags” in HTML (web pages). A “tag” indicating a “header” is added into a webpage’s code (ex.<h1>text in between heading tags</h1>).

“Screen readers” process headers, presenting a document’s content by hierarchical importance to a visually impaired learner.

Screen readers are software programs that allow blind or visually impaired users to read the text that is displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesizer or braille display. A screen reader is the interface between the computer’s operating system, its applications, and the user. ~ American Foundation for the Blind

This software will verbally read out each header tag to an impaired user, making it possible to navigate by topic easily. College students with visual impairments usually work with the disability services office to set up and train with screen reading software.

Heading 1 (H1) through Heading 6 (H6)

In all instances, number headers from one to six. H1 is most often applied to a document’s title, since in theory, a title is a stand-in for all of a text’s content. Since H1 represents the totality of presented information, there should never be more that one H1 in a document/web page. Since the introduction of HTML5, there has been a loosening of this rule. Regardless, only the highest levels of your content should receive an H1 tag.

Headers from H2 to H6 represent increasingly smaller structural segments of information. H6 would indicate the smallest possible distinct sliver of information in the document. Unlike H1, there can be multiple H2s – H6s in a single document.

Outline Hierarchy v. Header Hierarchy

In middle school, I was taught to organize my writing using an alphanumeric outline. The application of header tags follows the same hierarchal pattern of sections and subsections. As with outlines, you can never skip over section indications. For example, when making an outline you wouldn’t jump from I. to 1. without an A. in-between. Similarly, you shouldn’t move from an H2 to H4 without an H3 in-between.

Below are two versions of the same informational structure. In the first instance, the data is organized as an outline, while the second instance is organized with headers. Notice that the outline and header hierarchies are identical, except for their nomenclature.

Outline Hierarchy

Title/Thesis Statement

I: Section 1
A. Section 1.1
B. Section 1.2

II: Section 2
A. Sec 2.1
1. Sec 2.1.1
B. Sec 2.2
1. Sec 2.2.1

III: Section 3
A. Sec 3.1
1. Sec 3.1.1
2. Sec 3.1.2
a. Sec
b. Sec
i. Sec
ii. Sec

Header Hierarchy

H1: Title

H2: Section 1
H3: Section 1.1
H3: Section 1.2

H2: Section 2
H3: Sec 2.1
H4: Sec 2.1.1
H3: Sec 2.2
H4: Sec 2.2.1

H2: Section 3
H3: Sec 3.1
H4: Sec 3.1.1
H4: Sec 3. 1.2
H5: Sec
H5: Sec
H6: Sec
H6: Sec

Adding Headings in MS Word

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 12.28.40 PMIn MS Word, headings are located in the “style” menu bar. To add a heading, select the appropriate text and click on the desired heading level. As your information structure grows deeper, more heading options will become available.

Note: If you are using a PC, an exported pdf file will retain these headers. If you are a Mac user, an exported pdf will not keep its headings. Mac users should save their documents to a flash drive, open them on a PC, before exporting as a pdf.

Adjusting Heading Styles in MS Word
  1. Go to the Format menu
  2. Select Style
  3. From the provided list, choose the heading you wish to alter
    Note: Headings options may not appear until they are present in the document.
  4. Click on the Modify button
  5. Adjust font/color/size as desired
  6. Click the OK button
  7. Click the Save button

Adding Header Tags in your Learning Management System (LMS)

paragraphThere are a lot of different LMSs out there, and despite their differences, they all have one tool in common. When creating content pages, developers are always furnished with a rich text editor (RTE). All RTEs are essentially identical, allowing for the input/formatting of text, images, fonts and rich media. Most importantly for this discussion, all RTEs contain a headings drop-down menu that allows us to add headers (H1-H6). By default, these pulldowns all show the word “paragraph.” Paragraph text means standard default text. To add a header, highlight the appropriate text and select the desired header level from the pull-down menu.

Note: When creating a new page in an LMS, you are always asked to provide a page title. Many LMSs automatically mark these titles with an H1 tag. As such, when I’m working in an LMS, I tend to start with H2.

Adjusting Headers in your LMS

The default appearance of header tags will be set by the LMS. Unlike MS word, this formatting can only be altered by a system administrator. If you are unhappy with how these default headers look, it may be worth talking through your options with a friendly I.T. guy.



Headers are easy to add, providing real and valuable assistance to visually impaired learners. Fortunately, headers function in the same way on all digital platforms. Once you understand their basic structure, you will be able to apply this knowledge in multiple contexts. Let’s get out there and be accessibility savvy!