Website Accessibility: A Primer for Higher Ed

Posted: April 12, 2018

If you are managing a higher ed website, you need to be paying close attention to the responsibilities and challenges of website accessibility. Inattention can seriously impact your institution in terms of reputation, time and money.

For the past 28 years, businesses, educational institutions and public spaces have been grappling with the important challenges of accessibility. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) established clear guidelines for how places of public accommodation — places like hotels, office buildings, schools, restaurants and museums — must set standards to serve the disabled population. At the time, it addressed barriers to accessibility only in the physical world.

When ADA was enacted, we were living in a different world. Jeff Bezos was an investment banker on Wall Street and his “little” adventure with online bookselling,, was not yet on the horizon. Internet marketing was about to explode, but online shopping was still years away; malls were the big thing. The internet as we know it today was in its infancy and commercial ISPs had barely begun to emerge. Having a personal computer at home was pretty much a novelty and the iPhone was 17 years away in the future.

Fast forward to 2018 and we inhabit a very different world, a digital one where people “live” online. They now consume information, entertainment and even an education via the internet. And they do it all when they want and on the device of their choice — increasingly, that’s a small mobile device. Just about any kind of transaction — from something as simple as buying groceries to a life-changing choice like applying for college — is enacted online. As a result, laws once intended to make physical spaces more accessible must now be adapted to serve life in a digital environment.

The Alphabet of Compliance: DOJ. W3C. OCR.

As technology began to develop with lightning-fast speed in the late 90s and early 00’s, the Department of Justice (DOJ, the government agency charged with enforcing ADA compliance) began to give out signals that Title III would apply to website accessibility; in 2003, they rolled out a Voluntary Action Plan for government agencies and private entities, followed by a list of recommendations in 2007.

Meanwhile, the tech community rallied around a set of standards developed through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), establishing Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in 2008. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) became the standard for compliance for college websites, with web designers and developers aiming to meet those standards under level AANeglecting website accessibility can seriously impact your website users and your institution's reputation.

In January 2017, the Federal government moved forward with the adoption of WCAG 2.0 level AA as the standard for federal agency sites. That led many people to speculate that a full adoption of the standards by the DOJ for both public and private websites was on the imminent horizon. Not so fast. In July 2017, DOJ placed further rulemaking on the “inactive” list; in December 2017, it was withdrawn. On the other hand, the WCAG standards are getting an update soon with WCAG 2.1 expected to be published in mid-2018.

This leaves the disability community, businesses and higher ed institutions in a bind. Instead of having clear guidelines to follow, they have to continue to rely on a patchwork of legal decisions and voluntary compliance standards to figure out some sort of website accessibility roadmap.

Absence Doesn’t Always Make the Regulatory Heart Grow Fonder

It’s a roadmap that is proving difficult to navigate. The absence of definitive guidelines from DOJ does not imply an absence of responsibility under ADA — and that is having a major impact on the higher ed community. Complaints continue to be filed and lawsuits are multiplying as businesses and educational institutions scramble to make their websites accessible.

Clearly, web accessibility remains a challenge, in part because it is not always well understood.

What Exactly Makes a Website Accessible?

It’s easy to see some of the things that can make a physical space accessible: accommodations like wheelchair ramps, Braille signage, handicapped parking spaces and push buttons for doors facilitate the creation of an environment that can be used by all people. But what does it mean to have a website that’s accessible? According to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR):

“Accessible” means a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. A person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally, and independently as a person without a disability. Although this might not result in identical ease of use compared to that of persons without disabilities, it still must ensure equal opportunity to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of such technology.” 

In other words, a site that meets accessibility standards at the AA level is a highly usable site for everyone. If you follow the basic guidelines for accessibility, it will be easier for all your site visitors to consume your web content.

In terms of website accessibility, disability falls into five major categories:

  • Visual — blindness, low-vision, color-blindness
  • Hearing — deaf and hard of hearing
  • Motor — not having the use of certain limbs and paralysis
  • Speech — people not able to speak or who have a speech impediment
  • Cognitive — dyslexia, autism, ADHD

Users with disabilities rely on various tools to navigate websites; for instance, those who have visual impairment can use screen readers or Braille keyboards to help them navigate or software and devices to increase the size of text on the screen. Users with motor skill issues may do all of their navigation via a keyboard or dictation software. Hearing impaired visitors benefit from subtitles or captions on videos. They may also need alternative points of contact like email or live chat if they have trouble using a phone.

At its core, building an accessible website is part design, part UX (user experience) and, part coding, plus a whole lot of testing. Much of the work is making sure your interface can be navigated by different kinds of assistive technology.

Beyond the Legal: Why Does Website Accessibility Matter?

Let’s start with the obvious and most important reason why it all matters: providing accessibility is the right thing to do. People with disabilities should have equal rights and equal access to information.  But in addition to the compelling ethical reason to provide web accessibility, there are also a few more reasons to take action sooner than later:

  • Your website represents you and your brand.

Your website is one of the most important means of communication your higher ed institution has with your various audiences. It works for you 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  It only makes sense to make sure your website is accessible to as many people as possible. If you had a physical storefront, you wouldn’t be turning away customers by adding barriers that make it difficult for them to enter your establishment. You wouldn’t hide your products or make them otherwise impossible to access. A website is no different.

Website visitors are your customers — everyone from prospective and current students to parents, guidance counselors, internal staff and faculty, or alumni and donors who want to continue to engage with your institution. You should be doing everything possible to make it easy for them to enter and feel comfortable once inside.  If nothing else, maintaining website accessibility establishes trust that you are the kind of higher ed institution that is ready and able to meet the information needs of your target audiences, whatever those needs might be. That makes you stand out — in a good way.

  • Relying on DOJ inaction is not a good idea.

Just because DOJ has put rulemaking on the backburner for now does not mean that’s a permanent situation. By acting now, when ADA compliance for websites eventually does become a matter of law, you will be ready. You won’t have to play catch-up on your all-important website.

  • You may face penalties if you do not act.

The courts have been less than clear in their decisions about accessibility and in the absence of set guidelines from the DOJ, your institution remains vulnerable to the possibility of litigation if your site is not up to ADA standards. Potential legal consequences can and do impact educational institutions of all sizes. We’ve seen everyone from small, rural school districts to large universities find themselves at the other end of increasing OCR complaints and legal action. In the long run, you risk losing time, money and reputation for your higher education institution if you don’t focus on implementing and maintaining web accessibility standards.

  • Improve accessibility and you’ll rank higher.

In this case, doing good for others does good things for your SEO too. Having best practice accessibility standards in place goes hand-in-hand with providing an improved experience for all your website users — user experience matters a lot to search engines when ranking a site.

  • Accessibility standards are viewed as best practice.

By ensuring website accessibility for all, you get credibility points for being the kind of organization that puts focus on user friendliness, good design and good content.

In our digital world, you should expect that people of all backgrounds, abilities and experiences will demand that your site be clear, user-friendly and accessible. Accessibility matters — it must be part of your institution’s long-term digital strategy and web governance.

What You Can Do: Fundamentals of Accessibility

How does this all impact the nitty-gritty of website design?

The job of developers and designers is to create websites that present as few barriers as possible and that follow the coding conventions of the language the site is written in. Occasionally developers may be required to add some extra accessibility attributes to their code. Here are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about website design:

  • Proper Use of HTML headings: Headings provide a guide for visitors to not only understand how the page is structured but also provide jump-points for the non-sighted visitors who are using keyboards. Tabbing from heading to heading is a way of skimming web content, especially if users are trying to find a particular section of a website.
  • Keystrokes: Users who cannot manipulate a mouse have to rely on a keyboard. Therefore, your website needs to provide options for visitors to access all features using tab or other keys. Is it reasonably easy to tell where you are on the page as you scroll through?
  • Images: For those who can’t see, there needs to be an option to provide text for what that image is or represents (if warranted). You may have heard the term “alt text” or “alt tags” used frequently with respect to images; basically these terms mean a good, clear description of the image. Use alt text, captions, downloadable transcripts and long description tags for videos, photos, graphics, maps and animations so there is enough information available for those who cannot see them. (You should be doing that already for SEO purposes anyway!). Make sure that online forms and tables in your documents are also accessible and provide as many pre-populated, dropdown options as possible.
  • Links: Screen readers allow users to view the list of all links present on the page using a keyboard shortcut. This is especially useful if users are searching for a particular link. It’s important to use link words and phrases that are unambiguous and that can be intuitively organized regardless of order (the screen reader might sort them in order of appearance or alphabetically). For example, the phrase “contact us” is a common one that users may want to access. If the link says “you can contact us,” or “how to contact us,” or some other phrase that is less intuitive, users may have a more difficult time finding the link. Links should make sense out of context. Phrases such as “click here,” “more,” “click for details,” can be ambiguous when read out of context.
  • Menus: Menu fly-outs and hover states need to have specific coding if additional content is triggered on the hover. Navigation menus also need to be in the same location and order on every webpage; user interface components used across the website should be identified consistently on every page.
  • Color: For those who are color blind or who have difficulty perceiving text, color on a website can present all sorts of challenges. One solution is not to present color alone as an indicator for action or importance. For example, if you want to highlight a link, don’t just make it a single color, add an indicator as well such as an underline. That way those who can’t perceive color will see that text as a link distinctive from the surrounding text. For individuals who have trouble perceiving text, adding a high level of contrast between foreground and background colors is also imperative. Current level A guidelines suggest a contrast ratio of at least 3:1 for normal and large text. For best practice level AA compliance, the contrast ratio of normal text should be 4.5:1 and the contrast ratio of large text should be 3:1. (There are a number of tools you can use to run a color contrast check of your website content.)
  • Consistency: Larger institutions can have sites that are hosted both internally and externally and they may not all share the same domain name. As a result, some parts of your site may be accessible, some may not. But website visitors won’t make the same distinctions you may between different departments or units — to them, it’s all your university. With that in mind, make sure your accessibility standards are consistent across the board even with apps and content delivered by third parties.
  • Content: Write copy that is clear and concise and easy to understand. This improves both navigation and readability for your site — and that’s a benefit for all website users, not just those with disabilities.

Next Steps

Some of these issues can be checked by using automated software such as a downloadable accessibility testing browser plugin like aXe for Chrome or AATT (Automated Accessibility Testing Tool), to name just two.  If you quickly want to perform a little accessibility testing on your site there are some very basic tests you can try.

To check on keyboard-only navigation, try navigating through your website using the tab key. Is it clear where you are on the page? Was any content skipped over? There are also a number of free services to help you evaluate the current state of your site. Accessibility Checker is an open source tool that allows you to upload an HTML file or submit a single URL to determine conformance with accessibility standards.

The first step to providing greater accessibility for your higher education website is to identify and benchmark the issues. It’s especially important for IT and web teams to collaborate on this and create content governance based on best practices that all content providers must follow. It’s much easier to address accessibility issues before they arise, instead of having to fix them retroactively. Your best defense against future compliance complaints is to make accessibility planning part of your ongoing website planning and governance.

VisionPoint Marketing has deep experience in developing accessible, user-friendly websites for higher education institutions. If you have questions or want to start a conversation about how we can work together, please visit our website or reach out to our team. We’re always eager to help higher ed institutions succeed.