Accessibility: Higher Ed Website Design

 By Dwight McKnight 

The Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) Center at the University of Washington defines accessible design as the design process in which the needs of people with disabilities are specifically considered. An institution’s website design should not only communicate a clear brand and message to users, it must also provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with disabilities and limited resources. 

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

       -Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

Accessibility guidelines are like a construction permit: the main goal is to make the site usable. The World Wide Web Consortium developed these guidelines as a resource to use when considering how best to deliver information to your target audience. The guidelines are based on fundamental aspects that will help make your site easier to use for all people. Try not to see accessibility as something tedious, but as a helpful tool to reach all audiences. Remember to keep accessibility in mind when planning your site so you know which guidelines are necessary to help you maintain your design goals.

Why is Website Accessibility Important in Higher Ed?

The complex problem of ensuring that technology is accessible to people with disabilities touches nearly every aspect of a campus, from course materials and financial aid to public and internal web pages. Creating an accessible online environment requires a full campus effort. The goal is to make sure that everyone is able to easily access all areas of your site.

For more detailed information about the specific accessibility standards for higher education, take a look at the links below. 

  • WCAG 1.0: Checklist of Checkpoints for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0
  • WCAG 2.0 (Levels A, AA or AAA): How to Meet WCAG 2.0
  • 508c: Section 508 

Do’s & Don’ts in Accessible Design

  • DO make sure links are easy to access on all devices. In order to ensure full accessibility you want to make sure your links are easy to find and understand on all devices. Be sure to include descriptive link text so it can be read out of context. For example instead of making the clickable words “Click here” in a sentence saying “Click here for our events calendar”, make the clickable area “More information about upcoming events.” 
  • DON’T have too much visual activity between text and background. Visitors with poor vision or color-blindness can have difficulty viewing information on sites with busy backgrounds and dark colors. Some background colors and images can obscure text and make the site harder to view for all types of visitors. Be sure to test your site for accessibility by viewing it in different resolutions and color depths.
  • DO include descriptive ALT text for images. ALT attributes work with HTML image tags to give alternative text descriptive information for visual/graphical elements of a web page. This alternative text helps your audience understand what is on the page even if they aren’t viewing the graphic. Regardless of whether your user is visually impaired and using a text-based browser or a graphical browser with the image loading feature turned off, descriptive ALT text allows all visitors equal access to information. 
  • DON’T have inconsistent navigation. A consistent design and structure make it easier for visitors to locate the specific information they’re seeking. Features presented on every page, such as a standard navigation menu or the logo for the site, should always appear in the same place. A clear, consistent presentation will assist visitors with visual impairments or learning disabilities who have difficulty using disorganized navigation.
  • DO provide captions and transcriptions for multimedia formats. Multimedia that includes audio presents a barrier not only to people with hearing impairments, but to those who have less advanced computing systems and slower internet connections. Captions and transcriptions for these resources provide your audience with an alternative method for accessing that information.
  • DON’T make the text too small. Laptops and tablets are among the most commonly used devices for accessing the web. If your text size is too small, users may not be able to easily access information. If the site is being designed on a larger monitor, be sure to keep in mind that your audience will be using various devices. If your visitors cannot see what you say, or find great difficulty reading the content, your site is not going to be as successful as it could be and may alienate potential users.

Accessible design is important to consider when designing a website so that you can ensure your information is readily available to everyone. While this list is not exhaustive, they are key factors to consider when designing your site. For more tips and tricks on accessible design you can visit the World Wide Web Consortium’s page on improving the accessibility of your site.

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