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Web Accessibility

It should come as no surprise that the growth of the Web has seen an equivalent growth of the use of the Web in higher education. But not all of the growth has been sensible [1]. One of the ways in which people are not so sensible is in thinking about a variety of design issues. Does it matter? Yes, for both legal and ethical reasons.

Recently, the Justice Department has taken a fairly aggressive stance toward colleges and universities that have not been thoughtful about design. In particular, they are concerned that schools have not followed their responsibility under the Americans with Disabilities act to ensure that these educational materials are appropriately accessible.

However, whether or not we have to make pages accessible for legal reasons, we should make them accessible for ethical reasons. As educators, we should strive to make sure that our materials are accessible to as many people as we can. While we may not have differently abled students now, we may have them in the future, and it’ll be easier to do it then, if you pay attention to issues now. And, as the W3 suggests, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes access to information and communications technologies, including the Web, as a basic human right.

So, what do you do to make a Web page accessible? At the core, it’s something we should all know as liberal artists: Put yourself in the place of the other. Think about what would help you manage the content and navigate the page if you lacked sight, or hearing, or significant use of your digits [2]. For example, if a page starts with lots and lots of links [3], then you should probably provide an easy way to skip the links. That would help someone who lacks sight or has physical impairment. You should caption videos for those who lack hearing. You might also narrate them for those who lack sight [4]. And you should provide good alt text for every image [5].

Beyond thinking of the other, you can rely on both guidelines and tools. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines should tell you everything you need to know, as long as you’re willing to take the time to pay attention. Tools can help you focus on some things. I used to rely on Bobby to tell me what to work on. But Bobby is now discontinued. WAVE is a nice, free tool. Folks at Grinnell should be able to take advantage of SiteImprove. However, you should not rely only on automated tools, since they can’t tell everything that’s happening on the page. Once you’ve learned to focus on the issues that the tools reveal, and thought about the guidelines, you should be able to look at your pages and think about what else might be problematic. You can also ask others to help.

Are there other things? Well, I’ve found that if you rely on fairly straightforward HTML and CSS, you are more likely to create an accessible page. If you use JavaScript, you should also see what it’s like to read your page with JavaScript disabled. This doesn’t mean that you can’t do creative things on the page; it just means that you have to think about the implications.

Want to know more? Start at the W3’s page on Web accessibility [6]. And come back tomorrow (or maybe in a few days) to see me dissect a page or two.

[1] See, for example, Web Advisor and Sedona, for not-so-sensible Web applications.

[2] There are many other differences in ability. However, these three differences are a useful starting point.

[3] Yes, I’m thinking about my typical course Web page.

[4] Captioning is expected these days. Having watched way too many CS MOOC videos in which they assume that the viewer can tell what the code on the screen says, I worry about accessibility for the visually impaired.

[5] I know that a picture is worth 1000 words, but that doesn’t mean you need 1000 words in the alt text. However, you do need more than whatever is in the caption, or a short phrase, or whatever.


Version 1.0 released 2016-10-20.

Version 1.0.1 of 2018-02-25.