IT Services Accessibility Considerations

Screen readers enable users with visual impairments to interact with a computer.

Sometime ago I had the opportunity to train a former McGill Ph.D. alumnus and employee. I was teaching him how to use the McGill Web Management System (WMS) and what was impressive about this is that he was blind.

It was a truly enriching experience as it allowed me to “put myself in his shoes” and understand the challenges and potential frustrations that can arise when someone who can’t see the screen, interacts with a computer.

Here are some takeaways from this experience.

I hope these insights will benefit others and help you understand why making content accessible can really make a difference.

The items presented in this article focus on accessibility within the context of McGill WMS websites. 

The concepts are, however,
more broadly relevant to other systems as well.

Accessibility Overview Focus on McGill websites

JAWS & other Screen Readers

JAWS is a software package used extensively by blind and low-vision users. It’s a screen reading program that can read aloud anything on your computer screen including your web browser.

Thanks to JAWS (and other screen readers), individuals with visual impairments can use a computer: write documents, explore the Web, etc.

Accessibility programs such as JAWS, and other assistive technologies, highlight the positive impact of technology, as they allow individuals with disabilities equal access to society. In this case, assistive technologies allowed a blind student to complete his Ph.D. at McGill.

As a WMS Instructor,
I learned a few things from supporting this student with their accessibility needs. When observing a person using a screen reader for the first time, you quickly realize that the mouse we use to navigate our computers is quite useless in this context, as there is no way for a blind user to know where the cursor is on the screen. Navigation is therefore performed using the keyboard’s arrows and various function keys. Text is read out to users on-the-fly and users thus know where the cursor is located on the screen.

Structuring Headings

When designing accessible webpages, it is important to make use of headings (heading 2, heading 3, etc.) instead of simply formatting your text to look like a heading. Doing so will help a screen reader user more easily make sense of your page. One of the most common functions in the JAWS screen reading program is a feature that quickly reads out page headings allowing a quick jump to the appropriate section.

ALT text & Images

One source of frustration for screen reader users is the omission of alternative text for images and other visual content.

Alt (Alternative) text is an option in HTML when using images, that allows creators to include descriptive text. This text is read out by screen reading software to users, so they have an understanding of what the image is about. If you do not include alt text, these users miss out on the information in the visual content.

Creating Accessible PDFs

Another source of frustration in this context is encountering PDFs that are published “as an image”. When you open a PDF and it is impossible to select any of the text within it, you’re most likely dealing with an inaccessible PDF.

When screen reader users encounter such a document, they have to do additional work using a companion application to make the PDF readable by the software. This is time consuming and it does not always work. Thus, the best practice should always be to make sure the PDFs are accessible to begin with.

There are some strategies one can use to create accessible PDFs:

  1. Microsoft, for instance, has an “Accessibility Checker” built into Word & other Office 365 apps;
  2. Adobe Acrobat Professional includes an option to create accessible documents.

Accessibility Services at McGill

Office365 Accessibility

Office 365 ProPlus and other tools are available via IT Services.

IT Training

Web Management System training which includes accessibility best practices is offered via IT Training.

Web Services

Additional accessibility training is available via web services (WS-105).

OSD & Provost's Office

In depth accessibility coverage is available via the Office for Students with Disabilities and the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic).

Refer to the following in-depth articles on the topic:

Additional Resources

If you believe an accessibility issue is present on a given McGill website or application please report it via the following form:


Accessibility videos


McGill YouTube alternatives for Closed Captioning:

Linkedin Learning courses

The following courses are available to all regular Academic, Administrative Support and Trades Staff.

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