Web Accessibility in Higher Education

Auto-play videos on websites are the worst.

They start blaring from your computer speakers without warning as soon as the page loads. Then, you have to quickly find the pause or mute button. It’s frustrating, and frustration does not make for a good user experience.

Imagine if you couldn’t see the pause button. Or, if you couldn’t use the mouse so you had to toggle around with the keyboard until the space bar worked to pause the video.

A sizeable portion of your university website visitors have issues like these. Many of your prospective students may be blind or otherwise visually impaired, hearing impaired, dyslexic, or utilizing impaired motor skills, to name a few.

The accessibility of your website is important to them, so it should be important to you, too.

In case you aren’t convinced, yet, here are four reasons you need to maximize the accessibility of your university website and a few tips on how to do it.

1. Legal obligations for higher ed website accessibility 

There are two main sets of guidelines which govern web accessibility: The U.S. Access Board’s Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (508 Standards, for short) and the World Wide Web Consortium’s (WC3) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

The 508 Standards are undergoing some changes effective January 18, 2018, so they will match up more closely with the WCAG 2.0. These guidelines provide a minimum baseline for web accessibility.

On June 13, 2017, a Florida federal judge ruled on the issue of web accessibility in Juan Carlos Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. The judge found that Winn-Dixie had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because the store website was not accessible to the plaintiff.

That was the first case ruled upon at a federal level, but the number of litigations involving web accessibility suits has increased in recent years.

Lawsuits of this nature would be bad for your school’s image, but it’s only one of many reasons to meet and even exceed the current web access guidelines.

2. Social responsibility for web accessibility

Having an inclusive campus is good for the students. It fosters a chance for them to experience different worldviews and cultivate an increased level of tolerance and empathy.

A website that extends greater acceptance and opportunity to prospective students with impairments is important from a moral and ethical standpoint. Students with additional needs bring value to university campuses, and they deserve to have the same opportunities as students who don’t share those additional needs.

The focus on web accessibility can also be tied into your university brand. If an inclusive community is one of the highlights of your university’s values, this focus demonstrates that the value placed on inclusion is more than mere talk.

3. Expanding your market through web accessibility

As mentioned earlier, a sizeable portion of your site visitors have some sort of impairment. One estimate puts the percentage as high as 20% of visitors.

If they are taking the time to visit the university website, there’s a good chance they are interested in enrolling. Limited web accessibility could either kill that interest or make applying and enrolling difficult enough that they won’t bother trying.

So many of your site visitors fall under the umbrella of needing improved web accessibility because there is such a variety of impairments that require assistance. A few were listed above, but that’s just a small sample.

4. Improving accessibility = improving your overall user experience

Remember the auto-play example above? Getting rid of features like that not only makes your website more accessible to disabled visitors. It also makes the site more attractive to users who don’t need the additional assistance.

There are lots of features in common usage on websites that actually make the sites a pain to navigate. Poor design choices, including questionable color palettes and difficult to read fonts, can make visiting a website an unpleasant experience.

Often the things that make a website uncomfortable for users also make the website less accessible to users with additional needs. By increasing the web accessibility of your site, the experience for other users will improve, too.

How to make your higher ed website accessible

So, maximizing your university website accessibility is clearly a good thing. But how do you start making your site more accessible?

First, you have to realize that it isn’t a one and done type of venture. Technology is constantly changing, and so is your website. You need a comprehensive strategy to ensure that when something changes on your site, it remains accessible to users with additional needs.

Part of that is getting everyone on campus involved. IT may be the department most responsible for the functionality of the university website, but it’s likely that tons of other departments contribute content and possibly run their own pages.

You want to ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding web accessibility guidelines by having a specific policy in place. It might even be worthwhile to have as many people as possible go through training related to the web accessibility policy, especially if they have anything to do with the website.

Second, be sure there is contact information available on the website for users with impairments. If something isn’t working, you want them to be able to tell you before they tell the Office of Civil Rights (OCR). That means having someone, or some department, specifically in charge of web accessibility.

Finally, test the website extensively. There are several automated software programs available to scan your site for web accessibility issues. These aren’t foolproof, though. So, you also want to do manual testing with a focus on keyboard usage and whether or not the site works well with impairment assistance software like Job Access With Speech (JAWS) for Windows or VoiceOver for Apple.

There are many reasons for making your university website more accessible for users with additional needs. Aside from the legal obligations, there is a social responsibility. Plus, it can expand your market and improve the user experience for all of your site visitors.

Increased web accessibility isn’t necessarily difficult, but it is an ongoing process. To draw in students with impairments, you’ll need to continue improving the accessibility of your website to meet their needs.

This article is based on an interview with Mark Greenfield, Digital Strategist for the University at BuffaloTo hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

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