Reducing the use of PDF and scanned materials to increase accessibility

By Rob Higson (Learning Technologist, Curriculum Development)

As inclusivity practices are improving across the institution, we are seeing a greater range of accessible teaching materials within modules. This combined with the ALLY alternative formats tool provides a greater range of options for students with accessibility needs.

One tricky area is that of materials not created by academics, but still present in modules, for example, PDFs of journal articles, sector reports or scanned copies of academic texts.

Materials like these can be tricky for a several reasons:

  • It’s likely you will not be able to edit them if an accessibility adjustment is required.
  • They may not be licensed for use in this way, and it can be difficult to keep track of how individual items can be used both for legal purposes and for library usage statistics.
  • Materials like these could be also hard for students to engage with due to the inability to edit elements of them to suit specific accessibility needs E.g., Altering background colour.
  • They may not be able to be read by a screen reader.

When presented within modules it is also difficult for students to request alternative versions as they are not directly accessing materials from the original publisher, who should ultimately be responsible for making content accessible and providing alternatives.

To increase the accessibility of teaching materials like this there are lots of approaches we can take:

  • Check that the materials in question are still relevant and actively used – if not remove them from module content or update them, using an accessible version as below.
  • Link to original source materials wherever possible either through the web or using library databases or via reading lists with the new Leganto reading list system.
  • Contact the Academic Librarian team ( who can provide guidance on the availability of online versions of materials or the Copyright Team ( on whether portions of the books can be scanned under the terms of the CLA license held by the university. A key benefit is that many of the library databases and eBook platforms feature customisable accessibility settings such as font size, colour, contrast, and a screen reader, all of which students can set and use individually to suit their needs. Compare this to a PDF which may have no editable features.

Melanie Powell, Senior Lecturer in Economics, has been using Leganto to link to resources directly within Blackboard. This has enabled students to access materials to read online with customised accessibility features where needed or to reserve a physical copy directly.

Melanie said about this change…
“In the past, I have provided pdf versions of important journal articles for students on Blackboard as well as web links, but the accessibility score was always low.  After attending a short training session on the new Library system Leganto, I saw how easy it is to search for journals and books in Leganto and add them into the online Reading List in Blackboard. You can then create shareable links which you can put in weekly folders or assessment folders for students to access and read.  I then did a quick demonstration at the start of each week to show students how quickly they can get to the reading. My students have said they find it really easy clicking the links and going straight to the journal articles or e-books.  They can then set their own accessibility settings if they want to.  It has also hugely improved my accessibility scores by removing pdf files.

The new Leganto system is really easy to navigate.  You just go into your online Reading List in a module in Blackboard, set up a section such as recommended “CW reading” or “Seminar 5 required reading”, click Add Items, and Library search, enter a journal article or book title, and when it locates the article or book, drop it into your section list. You can then click the 3-dot link on the item, choose “create a shareable link”, and copy the link into Blackboard wherever you want it.  I now have weekly Private Study reading folders in the Study Materials area of Blackboard, and CW Recommended Reading list folders in the assessment area of Blackboard on my modules, entirely made up of shareable direct links to journals, online reports, websites, videos and e-books.”

Improving the accessibility of teaching materials is an ongoing journey for many staff, with changing practices being developed all the time. Consider how materials that you didn’t create are presented, and if there are better options with increased accessibility for the same content.