Adopting an integrated approach to institutional website accessibility

Website accessibility has become a hot-button issue in the academic world recently. Accessibility lawsuits have targeted dozens of colleges and universities over the past decade, and with more stringent state accessibility laws on the horizon, we can only expect the number of these complaints to rise.

Many institutions struggle to keep up with the demand for digital accessibility as they expand their websites and publish new content for current and prospective students, alumni, and faculty. This is where an integrated website accessibility solution can help. This article will discuss the core tenets of web accessibility and the different approaches a college can take to achieve it.

An introduction to website accessibility for colleges and universities

Most colleges and universities are covered by either Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 508) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Section 508 applies mostly to state-funded institutions or private colleges that receive federal funding, either through grants or student loans. The ADA, on the other hand, covers private institutions that serve as public accommodations.

While Section 508 has clear guidelines for website accessibility, the ADA itself is mostly silent on what constitutes an accessible website, with recent ADA lawsuit settlements and rulings referring to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) instead. The WCAG is widely considered the most comprehensive set of accessibility best practices and success criteria, including those for usability, readability, and support for assistive technologies.

Complying with the WCAG also means being compliant with both the ADA and Section 508. It also means complying with the accessibility laws and regulations in different countries and regions, such as the European Union. This can significantly expand a website’s reach, attracting top students and faculty from overseas. An accessible college website also performs well in search engine rankings, giving it an advantage over similar institutions that do not have an accessibility strategy in place.

Approaches to website accessibility

Accessible websites use multiple methodologies to meet WCAG standards. The first approach is manual testing. This method involves a live tester simulating different scenarios encountered by individuals with disabilities. For example, they can test a website from the perspective of a person with a visual impairment. They may use a screen reader or voice recognition software to check if the website responds to different commands. Manual testing may also involve checking the code for possible WCAG violations and creating a report that lists these issues and ways to remediate them.

The second method involves using a website accessibility solution that can scan the website for different violations at the code level. This type of solution can also include a widget allowing users to fine-tune their user experience to meet their needs. Some widgets come with pre-set user profiles for different kinds of disabilities, while others have multiple features such as high-contrast color combinations, dyslexia-friendly fonts, font size adjustments, and screen readers.

Combining both methods allows institutions to benefit from the advantages of each. For instance, automated code checks can help web developers or administrators find potential accessibility issues in web pages before they go live. On the other hand, simulating the journey of a user with a disability can identify user-specific issues that automated checks might have difficulty finding. This integrated approach maximizes a website’s digital accessibility while minimizing cost and downtime.

Integrated website accessibility: Ensuring digital inclusivity

Website accessibility is no longer an option among academic institutions. Aside from being mandated by law, accessible websites also help expose colleges and universities to promising talent, including individuals with disabilities, by expanding their range. Integrating both manual testing and automated accessibility can help institutions reach wider audiences and ensure that they offer online spaces that welcome everyone, regardless of their disabilities.