Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with your website. When I talk to my peers in higher ed, the most common reasons I hear for paying attention to web accessibility are:
- A sense of empathy
- Legal responsibility to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
However, conceptualizing websites from a Universal Design (UD) perspective can serve visitors with disabilities AND have a meaningful impact on both the visitor experience and your school’s marketing efforts.
What’s Universal Design?
Universal Design refers to the ideas, design processes, and techniques used to create products and physical environments that can be accessed by as many people as possible, regardless of impairment or disability status.
Physical environments that accommodate a wide variety of users can increase the quality of people’s interactions with the space — like how curb cuts allow wheelchair users to transition from sidewalk to street, but rollerbladers and people pushing strollers also benefit.
The virtual environment of your school’s web presence functions as an extension of your school’s physical environment, so, in the same way, making virtual spaces as easy to access as campus spaces benefits all users.
Universal Design Online
Goals of usability and accessibility often align, so rather than thinking about how users with disabilities interact with your pages, take a broader view from a UD perspective. Consider these scenarios:
- A prospective student finds the dense and technical language of their major’s department page hard to understand and can’t find admission requirements.
- A news reporter with a broken laptop trackpad needs information about your school, but finds the site difficult to navigate using keyboard shortcuts.
- While working on a red-eye flight, a faculty member wakes sleeping passengers around her when a video on the admissions site begins its auto-play cycle.
Each time, the user becomes impaired by a web page’s inaccessibility for reasons unrelated to impairment. Writing in plain, non-technical language, using navigation links that are easy to manipulate with a keyboard, and disabling auto-play on videos are a few of the web accessibility guidelines suggested by The Accessibility Project that also contribute to better usability.
Accessibility For All
Of course, there are important technological considerations for users with disabilities that shouldn’t be minimized:
- Adaptive and assistive technologies like screen magnifiers, alternative input devices, and text readers have specific requirements that affect how pages are constructed.
The Accessibility Project and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) offer online resources to help.
- OmniUpdate’s OU Campus™ content management system provides an Accessibility Check tool that helps you identify and correct potential issues, with reference to the exact line in which the errors are found (see image below).
Taking responsibility for your institution’s web accessibility may seem daunting, but remember – we have the technology!
To learn more, check out Higher Ed Live’s episode on Universal Design.
About the Author: Kate Browne is a technology trainer at Illinois Wesleyan University. She comes to IT by way of teaching and research in digital humanities as an English Studies Ph.D. candidate.