Roughly 20% of undergraduates in the US have a disability, and investigations against universities with inaccessible websites are becoming more common. Often, we think of digital accessibility as a last-minute requirement when redesigning a website, or as something to address and then immediately forget. For universities, accessibility is especially important when recruiting and retaining students. We wouldn’t design a university website that doesn’t work on 20% of browsers, so why would we be comfortable with a site that’s unusable by 20% of students? Accessibility is just one important part of including students of all backgrounds, identities, and abilities, and is necessary for making students with disabilities feel welcomed.
How can we better welcome students with disabilities, and improve the experience of everyone using our site? We have a few things for you to keep in mind as you might be considering redesigning your university’s website.
Accessibility improves the content experience for everyone, not just students and staff with disabilities.
Often, techniques used to make a product or space more accessible for people with disabilities will positively impact an entire community. We call this concept the “curb cut effect,” named after the physical ramps cut into sidewalks allowing easy access over a curb. These curb cuts allow easy movement across a street from a sidewalk and are a necessary accessibility accommodation for wheelchair users, cane users, and many other people with mobility and visual disabilities. These curb cuts help not only people with disabilities cross the street, but also people pushing strollers, skateboarding down the sidewalk, or looking at a phone.
In the digital world, an easy example of the curb cut effect is captions on videos. Captions are necessary for Deaf users, but also help people watching the video in a noisy space or watching a video in a language they don’t speak fluently. Many accessibility features on websites, such as appropriate color contrast, understandable language, and a clear relationship between elements, benefit everyone.
Universities often have departments that can help you with implementing and testing digital accessibility.
Too often, university departments working on a new website are unaware of the expertise present in their Disability Services office, and the Disability Services office is unaware that a new website is being created! One of the biggest resources you have to build an accessible website is the university itself. Nearly all universities have a department devoted to serving students with disabilities, by providing necessary accommodations, assistive technology, and advocating for the needs of students.
Not only do Disability Services staff have extensive knowledge about accommodations needed by students using your website, but they are often more than willing to help find users with disabilities to evaluate your design and website.
We recommend reaching out to a university’s Disability Services department as soon as possible when starting any new digital project with a university. They will be one of your most valuable partners in ensuring that a new site is inclusive and accessible.
The earlier you integrate accessibility into your redesign, the easier it will be.
Adding accessibility features to a website is like adding chocolate chips to cookies. If you add the chocolate chips to the batter before you’ve baked them, it’s super easy. But, if you wait until after they’re baked, you end up awkwardly pushing chocolate chips into your cookies. It’s harder, takes more time, and just looks strange.
It’s tempting to postpone thinking about accessibility until pre-launch QA, or even for a post-launch change list. But, when accessibility is left until late in the process, it will likely involve rewriting code and updating designs. When we keep accessibility in mind while coding a site, however, it often adds very little time to a developer’s process to write HTML properly to ensure accessibility. The same is true for a designer who, when thinking about accessibility early, will choose appropriate colors with enough contrast, consider focus states, and consider other important aspects of visual accessibility. That’s because accessibility impacts everything—from visual design to the structural code of the site.
Universities have detailed legal requirements they must follow for digital accessibility.
Accessibility is one part of universally inclusive and usable designs. We have an ethical duty to ensure everyone can use the websites we create. In the United States and in many places around the world, building websites accessibly is the law! Universities must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (Title II for publicly-funded universities, community colleges, and vocational schools; Title III for privately-funded schools). All schools that receive federal funding must comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and make their programs accessible to students with disabilities.
Therefore, all university programs and services must be accessible to students with disabilities. This applies not only to things like physical buildings and classroom spaces, but also communication tools and websites.
Accessibility is an ongoing process; think long-term.
Unless you’re building a completely static site, accessibility is never really “complete.” As you add new pages, templates, and content to a site, it’s important to continually validate accessibility, ensuring that all the cool new things haven’t created a barrier to your users with disabilities.
In addition, as web technologies grow and change, so too does accessibility. As users with disabilities adopt new assistive technologies and express their needs, our websites must be adapted to ensure we include all of our users. Just within the last year, the set of guidelines used around the world as our industry standard for web accessibility (the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) were updated to include guidance for mobile devices and voice input.
Above all, remember that the best way to ensure that a website is accessible to people with disabilities is to listen to people with disabilities about their experiences with the site. As you receive feedback from students and staff about barriers the site presents to them, listen and update the site.
To set up your site for long-term success, build a solid foundation with an accessible design and well-written code, train website management staff on accessibility, and continually improve via feedback from users.
When your website is accessible to students with disabilities, not only are they able to use the site as any other student would, but they feel more welcomed and included at your university. Although the accessibility features built into your site may not be noticeable to some students, those of us with disabilities take note and appreciate them. When making the choice to attend your university (or to remain enrolled), disability services are of paramount importance to students with disabilities. We hope that you’re able to put our suggestions into practice, and make your university a better place for students with disabilities.