Web Accessibility: Challenges and Rewards

Web accessibility is a hot topic, especially in higher education. As more of our everyday learning, living, and communicating becomes digital, it is important for institutions to design their websites with all users in mind—specifically those with vision, hearing, motor function, or cognitive disabilities. Not only is providing equitable web access fundamentally the right thing to do—institutions are legally required to do it.

What is web accessibility?

The definitive word on what qualifies as accessible digital content comes from an ever-evolving document known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines denote three levels of accessibility, labelled A through AAA.

The first two WCAG levels align closely to the requirements listed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That means if a design complies with WCAG level AA, it is more than likely in compliance. The majority of users will be able to access a site with ease at this level, and there is no reasonable risk of legal liability.

Designing websites to meet WCAG requirements doesn’t just help users who require these accommodations. It makes the experience better for everyone. Anyone who’s ever dragged a heavy suitcase up a wheelchair ramp or ridden a bike over a curb cut knows this to be true. Captions aren’t just useful for users with impaired hearing, but also to those who watch videos in public spaces or while multitasking. These clearly demarcated links can reduce friction across the board for all users.

What’s at stake.

Focusing on web accessibility will help improve user experience, but more importantly it is legal requirement. We are starting to see some hefty consequences for breaking the rules, and there’s no sign of that waning.

Earlier this year a lawsuit was brought against MIT for failing to provide captions on their publicly available online videos. Harvard University went through a similar lawsuit in 2015 for failing to add accurate captions to its video lectures.

It’s easy to see why institutions might be intimidated by the sheer scope of what accessibility means in action. When a media library goes back decades, adding captions to every video is a huge and often massively expensive job. Even so, judges ruled in both cases that federal civil rights law means that accessibility is non-negotiable. That being said, we are here to help.

The perks of being accessible.

The liability faced by failing to be accessible online is clear—however there are also rewards for getting it right. Prospective students are likely to place significant judge on an institution by their interaction with its website. If that website is inaccessible to a student with disabilities, then that student has no reason to believe the school as a whole will be able to cater to their unique needs in other ways. Once a website presents a fully accessible portal, it will open up a new pool of potential applicants and enrollees—a group that the competition still might be alienating. Given how wildly competitive higher ed enrollment is right now, the ability to maximize an applicant pool is paramount.

Of course, there’s more to web accessibility than video captions. Clickability indicators, alt text, type resizing, color contrast: all these are spelled out in WCAG levels A and AA and will be discussed further in a later installment. Accessibility is a holistic process—one that requires a modern and thoughtful approach to aesthetics and digital design.

Use this online accessibility evaluation tool to put your institution’s website to the test. How well does it perform?

Let us know at info@lipmanhearne.com, and we can work out a strategic plan together.

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