7 Things You Should Know About Web Accessibility: #7 – What are the implications for higher education?
Just as we consider things like usability, security, and SEO, we need to consider accessibility. Accessible websites provide a better experience for everyone and help the University comply with legal mandates for higher education. Colleges and universities can commit to web accessibility through policy, but it also takes an investment in the employees that build websites – professional development to give them the knowledge and skills to do the work.
Commit to Accessibility
Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Many organizations are hosting events or providing resources to help people learn more about accessibility issues. Wherever you’re at in your web accessibility knowledge, it’s a great time to learn more.
Over the last several years, there’s been a steady increase in legal advocacy geared toward making web content accessible. In higher ed., that includes college and departmental websites as well as online course content. There’s no indication that this trend will change, so I expect web accessibility to continue to be an important consideration for colleges and universities. In the short term, I think we’ll actually see an increase in demand for accessibility specialists. In the long term, I think we’ll see that strategy shift to training and hiring more people that understand accessibility within the context of a broader expertise. For example, instructional designers that understand universal design and web professionals that understand general web accessibility issues.
Video and Captioning
A particular focus for higher education will be online video. The propagation of flipped courses and other video-heavy instruction methods has brought a great deal of attention to the accessibility of these formats for students with disabilities. The National Association of the Deaf’s (NAD) recent lawsuit against Harvard and MIT is the first of what I expect to be many such cases.
If you’re not already captioning your videos, start. Incorporate captioning into your production process. Captioning provides a number of benefits for your visitors, and like most things, it’s much easier to do on the front-end than to go back and add later.
Educause covers this topic pretty well. In short:
“IT accessibility requires specialized knowledge and therefore requires an investment in training of faculty and staff.” 7 Things You Should Know About IT Accessibility
The same is true for web accessibility. Like any aspect of website quality, it requires expertise to implement and do well. From an organizational perspective, that requires an investment, but improving the quality of our websites certainly makes the investment worth it.
How much does it cost?
It depends, but it’s probably less than you think. If you’re familiar with web standards and current best practices, you’re already well on your way. Many web accessibility problems come up because general web standards aren’t being followed, not because a developer is unfamiliar with a particular accessibility issue. For the folks who spend their days working on the web, sitting through a couple of workshops, reading some articles, and maybe going to a conference will set them up well for success. Here are some options for training and resources:
- Web Accessibility Essentials (TAMU)
- Web Accessibility Advanced (TAMU)
- AccessU (annual conference in Austin)
- WebAIM (online articles; onsite training; training in Utah)
If you’re looking for something in particular or have questions about raising the accessibility expertise of your entire team, get in touch with us: IT Accessibility at Texas A&M.
It’s the right thing to do.
There are many people who believe providing equal access to websites is simply the right thing to do. The web is an important resource for many, many services. We get our books online. We take classes online. We do our shopping, pay our bills, and watch our favorite TV shows – all online. Providing equal access to a website means providing equal opportunity to use and enjoy everything it has to offer.
However, whether you share that conviction or not, we need to consider the core values of the University. Our time working at A&M should be a reflection of those core values, and providing equal access is certainly a part of that.
It’s the smart thing to do.
Here are some of the benefits of web accessibility, beyond equal access:
- Improved SEO. Some of the best practices for building an accessible site will also help your search rankings (e.g., captions; transcripts; descriptive headings, links, and page titles).
- Larger audience. About 1 in 5 people has a disability in the U.S, and that number is growing as our population ages. Not all disabilities will affect the way someone uses your website, but there are many that do.
- Better usability. In the process of implementing good accessibility practices, you’ll often find and correct issues that were causing problems for all your users. Poor color contrast is a great example of that.
- Marketable skills. Whether you intend on continuing your work in higher education, moving to the private sector, or starting your own company, there is going to be a demand for web professionals that understand accessibility standards. You’ll increase your value by having experience in this area.
It’s the law.
Even if all the other justifications don’t convince us, there’s still this: A&M is required to have accessible websites and web applications. Federal civil rights laws, namely the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Both of these laws require A&M to provide equal access, including fully accessible technology. The University, A&M System, and state of Texas all have similar regulations to align with the federal mandate.
The IT Accessibility website links to all the regulations, if you’d like to look at them in detail. Alternatively, the University of Washington has a great page that summarizes the resolution agreements and lawsuits in higher education. I find reading the resolution agreements to be far more instructive than trying to parse through the regulations themselves.
Many private companies have accessibility initiatives, which include their websites and applications. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo – just to name a few. Apple, in particular, has done a great job building accessibility features into their products. The assistive tools that come standard with iOS, for example, are impressive.
Federal and (often) state regulations mandate equal access to education, including electronic and information resources. Consequently, it’s very common for universities to have their own accessibility initiatives, too. Penn State, Stanford, and the University of Washington are a few examples.
The people doing web accessibility work at these places can vary considerably. UX designers, developers, instructional designers, and other contributors can all play a part in making websites accessible. In some cases, there will be accessibility specialists who head those efforts, but that’s not always the case. Many people, in a wide range of disciplines, consider accessibility a part of their job, because they’re following web standards and/or universal design principles.
When it comes to web accessibility at A&M, we have a few accessibility specialists, but we also rely on the people building websites and contributing web content to consider accessibility as part of their jobs. The accessibility specialists in Texas A&M Information Technology exist to resource employees, set policy, and coordinate efforts, but the bulk of the work happens during the day-to-day activities of webmasters and other contributors (e.g., faculty, instructional designers, CMS users, developers) scattered across the University.
Some other key stakeholders doing accessibility work at A&M are Disability Services, Marketing and Communications, Instructional Technology Services, Center for Teaching Excellence, and Employee & Organizational Development. These groups are incorporating accessibility into their daily work and helping teach other A&M employees about the accessibility issues relevant to their roles on campus.
We often wear a lot of different hats in our jobs, so it can be difficult to know exactly what you should be doing when it comes to accessibility. For webmasters, a common challenge is explaining accessibility issues to content contributors using your CMS. If you need help, let us know; we can provide consultations and training. Take a look at the IT Accessibility website for resources and contact information.
Web accessibility works when we all use the same set of standards and consider access issues throughout our design, build, and maintenance processes.
Texas A&M’s Web Accessibility Standards
The World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) maintains guidelines that are largely considered the international standard for web accessibility; that’s what we use at A&M. The WAI has published guidelines for browsers, media players, authoring tools, websites, web applications, and probably a few more I’m forgetting. If you’re building sites with mostly static content, the set of guidelines most relevant to you are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. If you’re building more dynamic sites or web applications, you’ll want to look at WCAG 2.0 and Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) 1.0 (these design patterns are the best part of ARIA, by the way).
These guidelines provide a framework for defining accessibility. What makes an online form accessible? WCAG 2.0 can tell you. What about images? That’s in there too, along with almost anything else you can think of.
Considering Access at Every Step
While we’re talking about how web accessibility works, let’s also look at some common pitfalls. Web accessibility doesn’t work when…
- We think about access issues for our site templates, but ignore the content our contributors are adding through the CMS.
- We rely exclusively on automated tools to tell us what’s wrong.
- We test our site once, fix issues, and never consider accessibility again.
- We assume if there’s a problem, someone will let us know.
Do you see a trend? Web accessibility only works when it’s considered at every step. You can never say you’re finished making your website accessible or “it’s done.” It’s more accurate to say a website is more accessible. It’s an ongoing process that’s never finished. Just like anything else on your website, there will always be aspects that can be improved and updated as technologies change, needs change, and standards change.
To start considering accessibility issues, grab a checklist. I like WebAIM’s WCAG 2.0 checklist. If you’re not sure what some of the checkpoints mean, we can help. Take a look at the IT Accessibility website for resources and contact information.
An important note: Aim for achieving all A and AA criteria in WCAG 2.0. AAA is great anytime you can manage it, but AA is the minimum standard for A&M.
Most of you have heard by now that we are redesigning the university website, and some of you have even had a glimpse at it. On May 21 we will be doing an open presentation of the site for the uweb community. Come see the new elements, how it will work, and what it might mean for university branding online down the road.
For those of you unable to join in person, we will be broadcasting on TTVN Channel 6.
This will also be the first time we have hosted anything since moving into our new offices, so also feel free to come over just to see our new digs.
Web accessibility means producing stuff for the web – pages, applications, electronic documents, multimedia – that works for everyone, including people with disabilities. The last part of that statement usually merits the most discussion, because while web professionals are programmed to think about different browsers and devices, it’s less often that we’ve been taught to think about the diversity of people who visit our sites.
Accessibility vs. Usability
Web accessibility starts with understanding how people use our sites within the context of their abilities. That’s close to definitions you might see for usability, because the two are very similar. Web accessibility is really just a faucet of usability that’s been set apart because traditionally, the focus of web accessibility was on accommodations for people with specific disabilities. That’s not the case so much anymore, because we’re starting to understand how many accessibility features benefit people of all levels of ability, not just a particular group. Consequently, many such features have simply become best practices that improve a site’s general usability, rather than an accommodation for a particular group.
In fact, I’d wager you’re already improving your site’s accessibility all the time through good usability practices, whether you realize it or not. But it’s a normal tendency to concentrate on features that help people with similar abilities as ourselves, which leaves us open to some accessibility blind-spots.
The Big Challenge
Have you ever made the font size for your heading styles a little bigger, so it was easier to see the major sections of content? Or maybe you added a hover style to your links, so it was easier to see when the pointer was over a clickable area. We make those changes and a thousand others, because we’re catering to the needs and preferences of the people who visit our sites. But when you think about it, changes like distinctive headings and hover styles don’t benefit everyone, they only benefit your sighted visitors. What changes have you made to improve the experience for people with blindness or color-blindness? What about your visitors who don’t use a mouse or can’t hear?
There’s a huge diversity of people using our sites, all with different abilities, but we tend to focus on making it easier for people like us to access/use/absorb our content. It makes sense, since it’s the user experience we’re most familiar with. If you have good vision, you’ve probably been adding accessibility features to your websites for years – distinctive headings, good white space, clean typography – all things that improve accessibility for people who can see your content. If you can’t hear, you’ve probably had captions on every video published on your site. If you don’t use a mouse, you’ve probably had great keyboard access for any website or web app you’ve worked on. The challenge is thinking beyond how we normally experience the web.
Simply put, web accessibility means inclusion. When we work to make our sites more accessible, it means we’re considering the diverse needs, preferences, and abilities of our users, and we’re producing content that works for as many people as possible. It only takes a little time and effort to understand how people use the web differently than you do, and the result is a more open, usable, and robust website.
If you’d like to start learning about all the different ways people use your website, there are many, many good resources you can look at. My favorite is probably WebAIM’s Introduction to Web Accessibility. Their article provides a great overview and links to additional information that explains four major categories of disability types: visual, hearing, motor, and cognitive. If you’re ready to really dig in, take a look at A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences by Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery.
Making IT accessible means creating and buying IT products and services that can be used by everyone, including people with disabilities. Depending on your job, that could mean a lot of different things.
- Adding captions to a promo video
- Adding keyboard access to a button
- Running character recognition on a scanned PDF
- Adding contract language that makes accessibility a product requirement
There are a lot of people that produce or buy some type of information technology at the University, and if you’re a web professional, that’s a huge part of your job. So if you’ve never thought about how accessibility influences your work, you should consider it. There are a number of issues that affect website accessibility, and it’s an increasingly important topic.
- About 1 in 5 people has some type of disability.
- Our global population is aging, so the trend is heading upward.
- Accessible technology is required in regulated industries in countries around the world.
- Inaccessible technology means missed opportunities to include many smart, talented people.
Educause published a great primer to IT accessibility last year: 7 Things You Should Know About IT Accessibility (pdf). Over the next few weeks, I’m going to use the same format to talk about the part of IT accessibility most relevant to web professionals: web accessibility.
We are told in the mythical Introduction to Web Development 101 that the first thing we should do when building a new website is to establish who the audience is, and then build the site with them in mind. In practice this very often doesn’t happen. Even when we pay lip service to being audience-centric and go through the motions of identifying an audience, we very often then go forth and build the site just like any other.
Just how important this can be struck me earlier this week when one of my colleagues sent out an email saying “Sexiest website i’ve seen in a while” with a link to the Apple Macbook. My first reaction was “these animations are annoying.” Then as I continued to look it turned into frustration over how difficult it was to find actual information about the product, which in turn led to “why don’t they do this like Dell where all of the product information is in one easy to read chart”? On the face of it, both companies sell computers so it might seem logical that their websites wouldn’t be terribly different, right?
Upon further reflection, the answer is clear. Dell and Apple users are quite different. What appeals to one doesn’t resonate with the other. Both companies understand what their customers are looking for and have built their websites very differently, but with their respective audiences in mind.
We in higher ed can learn from this example. Instead of getting into the routine of doing every site in an institutional template — or the opposite, making every site with a splashy graphical experience — we should target the site design to the audience we are trying to reach. For some, a dazzling experience would be the preferred approach. A perfect example would be the Reveille site that we just launched. On the other hand, a site built for a targeted set of academics might need to tone down the design and focus on quick and efficient delivery of content. We can do both. In fact, we should do both. This type of flexibility might take some of us out of our comfort zone, but if we take our cue from two industry leaders that is exactly how we will most effectively share our content.