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.