Guest Blogger: Accessible Survey Instruments

Picture of blog author, Chanelle White

You’ve probably thought a lot about WHAT you ask students when you are assessing learning outcomes. Perhaps you’ve never considered HOW you ask those questions? I’m talking specifically about universal design or the concept that making things accessible benefits everyone. If you have an assessment that is
sent to students, it should be accessible for all. Many offices use surveys ranging from home-grown Microsoft Word documents to sophisticated tools like Formstack.

Perhaps your college or university is currently re-evaluating all of the surveys you use. Perhaps you’re frantically googling universal design (#tbt to me googling “snappy casual” last month in panic mode). Most likely you’re somewhere in between. Here are some considerations as you develop your survey instrument.


I can identify 3 barriers: education (or lack thereof), fear, and money.


Perhaps your staff isn’t educated in the need for accessible design, Americans with Disabilities or Rehabilitation Acts, or civil rights (but seriously). Research it yourself, take a class, develop a relationship with a campus partner, and challenge yourself to be an advocate for students with disabilities!


Listen, I’m not an expert in accessible survey instruments nor am I a computer programmer. I’m just a person who wants to help others and break down barriers in this complex educational system. Sometimes you need to cast fear aside: jump in head first, get your hands dirty, and learn something new.


When in doubt, money is always the problem, right? But, you may be thinking, I don’t have any money to make these compliant. Or, my school won’t pay for a new accessible tool. Actually, you can make accessible Word documents. Seriously, click File then Check for Issues and finally Check Accessibility. As long as you’re not doing complicated data visualization, it’s pretty easy. [Disclaimer: If you are doing some fancy things, you may want to get an expert to look at your documents. If we’re talking about a 10 question survey, I think you can figure it out. May the force be with you.]

Assessment Design

Use person-first language.

Bad: A disabled student asked me a question.

Good: Jennifer asked me a question.

This sounds silly, right? Jennifer is a person too and she doesn’t need to be defined by her mobility, disability, wheelchair, etc.

Use headings and be descriptive!

They help students who use screen readers to quickly navigate the page.

Bad: Section I

Good: Personal Information

Use descriptive links.

When trying to find information in an email, website, or Word document, students who use screen readers may tab from link to link to quickly find information. If you bury the link to your survey in an email, students may give up and not take the survey!

Bad: Click here to take my survey. [Not a real survey]

Bad: Take my survey here, [Definitely not a real survey]

Good: Please take the Oh No It’s an Assessment Blog 2016 Survey. [Still not a real survey]

Use alternative text.

Does your survey include a bunch of images? Data visualization is awesome, but we need to make sure those images are conveyed to users with screen-readers. Adding alt text is often as simple as editing the picture in the format mode and adding an alt text or right-clicking on the image to type a description of the image.

Keep it clean.

Bad: Attention students: Take my really awesome survey to win $50!

Good: High contrast text (dark blue or black on white), easy to read fonts, and no flashing buttons or images, etc.


Screen Readers

NVDA (free) or JAWS (costly) are two screen-reader tools. These are text-to-speech screen readers that many students who are visually impaired use. The biggest disadvantage to using these tools are that they require a lot of practice to become comfortable using them. If you personally are not familiar with these tools, perhaps you could strike up a conversation with someone in IT services, web development, or disability resources? You might learn something and have a new colleague across campus.

Accessibility Checkers


Free web accessibility checker. Easy to use because you simply paste your URL in the search box and BOOM- results.

Total Validator

“Total Validator is an HTML validator, an accessibility validator, a spell checker, and a broken links checker all rolled into one tool, allowing one-click validation of your website” (stolen directly from the Total Validator website). You must download a desktop application. They have a free version and a pro version.

I hope this brief overview gives you somewhere to begin checking accessibility (a11y for short) in your survey instruments. This post was not sponsored, but if you want to sponsor it, please contact my attorney (since I didn’t win the #powerball).

 Chanelle White is the Senior Academic Advisor in the Farmer School of Business at Miami University. Please leave your comments below or feel free to contact Chanelle via email at

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