Website Accessibility

I’m sure that most student affairs professionals and indeed most Americans have some passing familiarity with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Together with other related state and federal laws, particularly Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, these are the laws that require things like sloped roadside curbs, doors and hallways wide enough for wheelchairs, and elevators and ramps.

Fewer people, including many who work with computers and create webpages, are aware of the laws and legal rulings that govern web accessibility. Foremost among them are Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. This law is essentially a codification of the World Wide Web Consortium‘s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. Although this law only applies to federal agencies, many states have passed similar or identical laws. Further, there is a small but growing body of case law that indicates that these laws may be applicable even to private corporations’ websites.

I write this post for two reasons. First, I am alarmed by my own experiences with webpage development and application procurement in higher education in that accessibility. Despite being a legal mandate for many institutions and a moral mandate for all institutions, accessibility is not even on the radar screen. It’s not a low priority – it’s not a priority at all. I understand that some of the issues may appear complicated but for us to make no effort whatsoever is shameless and unethical. I place some of the blame on the vendors who continue to ignore the issue (the major projects in which I’ve helped purchase, configure, and maintain web-based systems left us with no accessibility options unless we developed the systems ourselves; we lacked the resources to develop the systems in-house). That, of course, is a chicken-and-the-egg scenario because the vendors are naturally unwilling to expend resources on a “feature” that their clients obviously don’t care about. In my mind, educators’ lack of concern for online accessibility is an ethical and moral disconnect and I remain disappointed that many of those who are very quick to recognize physical issues that will affect disabled persons are so ignorant of or unwilling to address online issues. I’m not asking for everyone to become WAI experts but it’s perfectly reasonable for people to be aware of the issues and seek the advice and input of experts.

The second reason I raise this issue is as an opportunity to share a fascinating link. As discussed above, we have collectively done a very poor job of serving handicapped populations. However, let’s not ever underestimate the ability of people to overcome difficulties or their ability to repurpose tools to serve their own needs. The link above discusses the phenomenon of deaf persons using web cameras to communicate with one another using sign language. Not only does audio present an obvious difficulty for deaf persons but written content also presents difficulties; written English is a phonic language that depends on understanding how the words are pronounced aloud. In any case, it’s incredibly awesome to see deaf and hard-of-hearing persons using these technologies in ways that most of us have never considered. They’re using the Internet to do what so many of us use it to do: communicate with one another.  They’re doing it on their own in their own language and that’s incredibly empowering.

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  1. One of the most fulfilling moments during my graduate assistantship with OSU was when my technology colleagues started mentioning accessibility before I did. I agree that a lot of vendors do an awful job with offering accessible products. They prey on the fact that most student affairs practitioners are willing to pay for flashy sites with music, videos, etc. versus sites/technologies which are accessible for all users. I have had vendors tell me that their flash-based product was accessible. It’s incredible. They usually change their tune after I use a screenreader (JAWS, Window Eyes, IBM Homepage Reader, etc.) and prove that most flash-based technologies are inaccessible.

  2. p.s. I have to include this gem of a quote from a higher education vendor. When asked how they achieved site accessibility with an all-Flash interface, one vendor stated, “we get around that issue by hosting your [micro] site on a dot com address that is separate from the university web address.”

    I was appalled. After I picked my jaw up off of the floor I asked about the ethical ramifications of their statement. They never answered…

  3. Let’s not place the blame on the technology. I agree that Flash is pretty difficult to make accessible (in some cases impossible) but it can be done. A quick search for “Flash” on shows several hits discussing both its shortcomings (note that those articles are several years old) and recommendations to help mitigate its shortcomings.

    I agree with the general point that the more complicated a website (or anything else) the more difficult it is to make accessible for everyone. I would also agree that there is often a poor trade-off between flashy-but-not-terribly-useful features and not-glitzy-but-functional simplicity. It’s a mistake to think of accessibility and usability as only something to do for others as it’s well documented that they make life easier for everyone.

  4. I think I’d have to do some checking, but didn’t Jakob Nielsen change his opinions on Flash shortly after Macromedia hired him as a consultant?

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