Using the Ally Tool in Canvas

Ally is an accessibility tool that runs in the background of every Canvas course. Ally provides an accessibility score for all images and documents in your course along with guidance for improvement. It also allows instructors and students to download versions of PDFs with searchable text and alternative formats including audio and braille.

When you see a small speedometer icon (The Ally accessibility icon, which looks like a speedometer.) appear with an image or document, that's Ally! This icon is visible only to instructors. Click on it for suggestions to improve your file’s accessibility. You can also use Ally to add alternate text to images and to create more accessible versions of digital documents.


Use Ally to Add Alt Text

Alternate text—also known as alt text—allows screen reader software to describe images for the user. Alt text should be brief, descriptive, and neutral in tone.

See the Alt Text Decision Tree from American University to learn how to write helpful alt text.

A small color-coded speedometer will appear in the bottom-left corner of each image you place in your Canvas course. A red meter pointing left means the image lacks alt text, an orange meter pointing to the middle means its alt text needs improvement, and a green meter pointing right means it has satisfactory alt text. Click on the speedometer to open a window where Ally suggests improvements to accessibility. It also provides a text box where you can enter alt text or mark the image as decorative:

Ally's alt text entry interface. It consists of two panes: the left pane contains the image (here a dog on a couch); the right pane contains a text box and other options.

After you add a description and click Add, or click Indicate Image is Decorative if no description is necessary, the image’s meter will turn green.


Use Ally to Improve Document Accessibility

The best way to ensure digital documents like PDFs are accessible is to begin with clear, easily-readable texts. This is especially true for scanned documents. It is not always possible to make a document accessible if it was scanned with poor focus or contrast, warped pages, missing text, or handwritten notes.

This article from UW is a helpful guide to making the best possible scans.

Ally provides a small color-coded speedometer next to the title of documents in your Canvas course. This icon represents the document’s accessibility score: a red meter pointing left is a low score, an orange meter pointing to the middle is a medium score, and a green meter pointing right is a high score. If you click this icon, Ally will give the reasons for its score and suggestions for improvement.

If you upload a PDF of high-enough quality to your Canvas course, Ally will automatically create an "OCRed" version with searchable text that can be processed by screen readers. This isn't the only feature that makes a digital document accessible, but it's one of the most helpful things you can do. The OCRed PDF will appear in Ally's Alternative formats menu for both you and your students.

To find it, click the Files tab in your left-hand course menu. Then hover your mouse over the document's title and click the three-dot button to its right. Select Alternative formats:

The Files section of a Canvas course, with the vertical ellipses button indicated with an arrow and the Alternative formats button circled in the dropdown menu.

You and your students can find this same menu from any file linked in a page, assignment, or discussion. Click the downward arrow to the right of the file's link, then select Alternative formats:

A linked document on a Canvas page. The download icon to its right is indicated with an arrow, and Alternate formats in the dropdown menu is circled.

The Alternative formats link leads to the following panel, where the OCRed PDF will be available for downloading if Ally was able to create it. You may sometimes see a Tagged PDF option. Tags give PDFs a logical structure that screen reader software can interpret for users. Tags make a PDF even more accessible than searchable text alone, so it's OK (and good!) if you see this option instead of OCRed PDF. Here's what the Alternative formats menu looks like:

Ally's menu for downloading alternative formats of documents, with the radio button for OCRed PDF indicated and the Download button circled.

To save students the step of using this menu, you can download the OCRed or Tagged PDF and replace the original version of the document in your course with the new version. This will increase the document's accessibility score.

If a document's Alternative formats menu doesn't list an OCRed or Tagged version, it's probably not clear and easily-readable enough to use. It may take several minutes for the OCRed version to generate after you upload a PDF, so if it isn't in the Alternative formats menu at first, try checking back after waiting a bit.


What if I Can’t Get a High-Quality Scan?

If you’re unable to create clear scans or don't have the source material available, here are the next steps:

  • Check the library’s online collections for electronic versions of the texts you need.
  • If you still can’t find them, complete the library’s Reserve Request Form for texts as soon as possible. The library will try to find or purchase digital versions, and if they can’t, they’ll contact you to offer more assistance.
  • If you need to use a non-accessible document that the library can't help with, contact Student Accessibility Services to see what other options for accommodation are available.


Further Resources

Discover Alternative Formats is a brief guide to finding Ally’s alternative formats menu which you can share with your students.

Please reach out to if you have more questions about Ally or digital accessibility!

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