Higher education & web accessibility

By now anybody involved in managing a higher education web site will be aware of the need to make it accessible. However, not all are clear as to why this is important or indeed how to go about it. This article is designed to give you a quick overview of the subject and direct you to some useful resources. What is web accessibility?

Web Accessibility is about making your web site accessible to the widest possible audience. Because of the lobbying of organisations such as the RNIB most people associate web accessibility with the visually impaired. However, web accessibility is much broader than that. It is also about providing access for those with motor impairments, learning difficulties and other forms of disability. It is also about making your web site accessible to all, irrespective of what browser technology they are using to access your site or the connection speed.

How web accessibility is measured

In practice, web accessibility is primarily (although not exclusively) defined by a checklist set out by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C is a governing body for the web that sets standards for technical development. One set of standards is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WAI) which defines three levels of accessibility each progressively more demanding. The most basic level of accessibility is Priority 1 (level A compliance) followed by Priority 2 and 3 (levels AA and AAA).

Why your web site should be accessible

There are three broad arguments for making your web site accessible to all:

Legal

Although the Disability Discrimination Act does not refer directly to web sites, the associated code of practice does. The Act makes it unlawful for a service provider to discriminate against a disabled person by refusing to provide any service which it provides to members of the public. The code of practice then goes on to give an example of an Airline company that provides ticket reservations via its web site. The required level of web site accessibility is as yet untested in a British court. However, in Australia a blind person successfully sued the Sydney Olympics Committee for providing an inaccessible web site. It is widely believed that this ruling will influence any future ruling in the UK.

The UK government is taking web accessibility very seriously and says the following on the e-government web site.

"All UK government websites are expected to achieve, as a minimum, and adhere to the single ‘A’ (Priority 1 items) level"

Higher Educational web sites are also affected by The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 which makes it unlawful to discriminate against a disabled person in relation to the services provided to students, and admission to the university.

These two Acts effectively mean that it is vital that Higher Educational web sites comply with the W3C WAI Guidelines at least to Level A.

For more on web accessibility and the law click here

Practical

Those involved in making a higher education web site more accessible should not perceive it as an obligation but rather as an opportunity. An accessible web site provides a huge range of benefits including:

  • Accessible web sites receive significantly better placement on search engines
  • Ensuring your site is accessible opens it up to audiences previously excluded from your site, including not just the disabled but those using older technology.
  • Having an accessible web site demonstrates your commitment to the disabled and will attract higher levels of applicants from this group.
  • Making your web site accessible also improves usability which in turn has numerous benefits in its own right.

Moral

Probably the hardest argument to articulate for web accessibility is the moral one. However, it cannot be ignored. At the end of the day making your web site accessible to all is simply the right thing to do.

The way forward

By now you should have a clear understanding of what web accessibility is and why it is important. It can seem like an overwhelming task to make your web site accessible to all but it does not need to be.

The key is to ensure that the stake holders in your site have a clear understanding of why web accessibility is important and that you provide them with the training and skills to implement it. This, in conjunction with a clear plan of attack, should be enough to ensure your site is accessible to as many as possible.

For more help on the practical implementation of an accessible web site read this excellent web site accessibility plan developed specifically for the Higher Education sector.

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