The Welcoming Website Part 1: Accessibility and Universal Design
by Kate Browne, Technology Trainer at Illinois Wesleyan University
on July 22, 2015
As higher education institutions face increasing pressure to do more with less, web content managers may have difficulty making web accessibility reviews a priority. Too often, taking steps to increase technological accessibility is a reactive solution to a student or faculty request or the threat of legal action rather than a normal part of the web design process.
A sense of empathy and the legal responsibility to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) are the two most common reasons for paying attention to web accessibility. However, conceptualizing your institution’s websites from a Universal Design (UD) perspective can have a meaningful impact on both the user experience and marketing efforts of your institution.
Principles of Universal Design
Universal Design refers to the ideas, design processes, and techniques used to create products, buildings, and physical environments that can be accessed by as many people as possible regardless of impairment or disability status. Built environments that accommodate a wide variety of users increase the quality of how people can interact with the space.
For example, curb cuts allow wheelchair users to transition easily from the sidewalk to the street, but people pushing strollers and rollerblade enthusiasts also benefit in the same way. You may benefit from UD without realizing it. If you have ever used a hands-free phone app while driving, you have used an assistive technology based in UD principles.
Universal Design on the Web
The virtual environment of the web functions as an extension of your institution’s physical environment, so making your virtual spaces as welcoming and easy to access as your campus spaces benefits all users. Goals of usability and accessibility testing often align, so rather than thinking about how users with disabilities interact with your pages, taking a broad view from a UD perspective makes your virtual campus easier to use for a larger number of users.
Consider the following hypothetical scenarios:
- A prospective student finds the dense and technical language of their major’s department page hard to understand and cannot find the admission requirements.
- A local news reporter with a broken laptop trackpad needs information about your institution’s latest grant award but finds the site difficult to navigate using keyboard shortcuts.
- A faculty member decides to work on a committee project while taking a red eye flight to a conference. She wakes up the sleeping passengers around her when the video from the latest football pep rally posted on the admissions site begins its autoplay cycle.
In all three cases, the user becomes impaired by a web page’s inaccessibility for reasons that have nothing to do with impairment. Writing in plain, non-technical language, using navigation links that are easy to manipulate with a keyboard, and disabling autoplay on videos are a few of the guidelines for web accessibility suggested by the The Accessibility Project (also know as a11y) that also contribute to better usability.
Implementing Universal Design
Despite the need to consider web accessibility as an issue for all users, there are still important technological considerations for users with disabilities that should not be minimized. Adaptive and assistive technologies like screen magnifiers, alternative input devices, and text readers have specific requirements that affect how pages are constructed. In addition to many online resources provided by organizations such as The Accessibility Project and the World Wide Web consortium (W3), OmniUpdate’s OU Campus™ content management system provides an Accessibility Check tool that can help you identify and correct potential issues (see image below).
OU Campus™ Accessibility Check includes reference to the exact line in which the errors are found
Taking responsibility for your institution’s web accessibility may seem like a daunting project, but remember—we have the technology! In the next part of the series, I’ll share some quick and easy ways to start checking the accessibility of your web pages.
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 PhD candidate—a fact she uses to remind her OU Campus content managers that technology expertise isn’t just for computer science majors anymore.