Top Ten Accessibility Strategies in Higher Education

Text says Top 10 Accessibility Strategies in Higher Education on a blurred background of students working on computers in a laboratory.

Introduction

Higher education institutions are evaluating their website accessibility strategies to avoid the risk of litigation and making their websites accessible to students and parents who may be blind, deaf, or unable to operate a traditional keyboard or mouse. Here is a look at the top ten accessibility strategies in higher education and their importance.

Why accessibility matters for universities

First impression is everything. Considering that a university’s website is the portal of entry to information, it’s important to make sure that visitors of all abilities can take advantage of the resources available online.

Beyond inclusivity, website accessibility matters because it’s the law. This is important when accounting for requirements from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other national or state accessibility laws. Here is why accessibility needs to be a part of higher education strategies going forward.

Higher Education Accessibility laws and guidelines

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

To ensure accessibility of websites, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has issued the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) international standard, including WCAG 2.0, WCAG 2.1 and WCAG 2.2, which explain how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities. These are highly technical guidelines that might not be readily understood by risk managers or educators, but rather are routinely addressed by technology professionals. However, most higher education websites need to be cognizant of the following:

  • Alt Text for Images – alternative text that allows a vision-impaired individual the ability to understand the presence, function and content of images on a site
  • Link Text – text that allows a user to navigate a website and links to other webpages, documents and content
  • Form Labels – text that allows a user to understand forms on webpages
  • Keyboard Navigability – functionality that allows a user to navigate a website using a keyboard instead of a mouse
  • Captions – for all audio and video content
  • Proper Headers, Lists and Tables – functionality and formatting to allow a user to understand the ordering of content
  • No Flashing Graphics – graphics that flash have been known to inadvertently cause seizures in certain individuals.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act and strengthened provisions covering access to information in the Federal sector. As amended, Section 508 requires that Federal agencies’ electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public.

Colleges and universities are also required to adhere to Section 508 standards since they receive various forms of federal funding.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.

States have their own website accessibility requirements too. Public universities and colleges that receive funding from the state are required to make their website and web content accessible. And when it comes to financial aid, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights is taking a keen interest in making sure that universities and colleges are following these accessibility requirements. In recent years, there has been an uptick in cases filed against universities and colleges for website inaccessibility.

Compliance helps reduce liability and student frustrations

Heavy fines levied by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights is not the only risk when a higher-learning website fails to meet accessibility requirements. Universities and colleges may land in hot water if a student or a parent with a disability decides to sue them for not providing websites that meet ADA requirements. A famous case in 2018 involved Jason Camacho, who was a blind student. He sued 50 different colleges and universities because his screen reader was not compatible with their websites. While some colleges challenged the suit, a judge ruled that he had standing for his case, and many of the institutions choose to settle afterward.

Students make university decisions based on websites

Three benefits of accessible websites: Inclusivity, compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act, and benefits for everyone.
Benefits of accessible websites

From a branding perspective, accessible higher education websites deliver a host of benefits. When students and their parents start looking for universities, their first step is to take a look at the available programs, financial assistance, and career help offered by schools. They get the information by visiting the school website, before arranging for a campus visit.

One of the first points that universities and colleges have to tick off is inclusivity. Students want to know about how inclusive the college or university is? What is the track record of the school in promoting inclusivity on campus? The second, is whether the websites are compliant with ADA? The third will automatically be achieved if the website is inclusive and ADA compliant. Making the website and web content accessible to everyone, includes making navigation easier, creating more readable text, and ensuring that sites function perfectly on mobile devices.

If a website is not accessible to a visitor, either a student or a parent with a disability, then they will leave the site and look for other schools that provide accommodations for students with disabilities. If they cannot access a website properly, then they will not trust the facilities such as classrooms or learning materials are accessible. It is crucial to keep in mind that 26% of American adults live with some kind of disability. That is far higher when schools are looking to attract new applicants.

Higher Education institutions can promote synergy between their accessibility efforts and on-campus inclusivity. An accessible website can also include information about clubs or groups that represent the disabled on campus. It shows their commitment to ensure every student feels welcome, while assuring those with disabilities that the school cares about them and will support them on their learning journey.

Accessibility extends to online learning content

Having an accessible website is the first step to making sure all online learning content is accessible. That is especially important, since many schools rely on online materials, quizzes, discussions, and more.  

Common accessibility problems for university websites

  • A lack of alt text on images to explain their purpose for those who are using screen readers.
  • Poor keyboard shortcuts that make it difficult or impossible to navigate through a website using only a keyboard, especially when using more complex webpages where students are cycling through many different programs, classes, etc.
  • Sites that don’t function well with mobile devices or touchscreens, making it difficult for visitors who need to use these options.
  • Not including captions and subtitles on university videos, online tours, and similar content.
  • No tags that explain what web forms are for and how they can be filled out, which is very important for those using screen readers and trying to fill out university application forms.

codemantra helps institutions of higher learning to ensure equal access and inclusive learning experience on time critical documents for students, faculty, and staff with visual impairments and cognitive disabilities.

Top Ten Accessibility Strategies in Higher Education

  1. Add structure with headings and lists

Most higher education websites, with a few exceptions display features such as hierarchical headings (H1 through H6, in descending order), bulleted lists, numbered lists, block quotes, and page dividers like horizontal lines.

Solid blocks of content limit the opportunity to consume information. Structural elements like informative headings, lists, quotes, and section dividers helps students with disabilities who use screen readers to quickly identify the section and topics they are looking for.

Correct heading hierarchy shows heading levels: H1, H2, and H3.
Heading hierarchy

2. Improve website browsability with anchor links

Anchor links on college and university websites are links or buttons that, when clicked, automatically carry the visitor to a specific section lower on the page. They are helpful for accessibility because they allow students with disabilities to easily skip over irrelevant content and instead navigate to the information that interests them the most.

Anchor link allows navigates from heading 2 to heading 3.
Anchor links

3. Use descriptive links and buttons

The links and buttons on a website must have descriptive text to make it easier to explain the associated action to users with disabilities. Using vague labels like Learn More or Read More is confusing to disabled students who use screen readers because they cannot understand the next action to execute.

The same rule applies to links. Rather than labeling a link with a vague phrase like Click here, it would be more useful to provide a description of the page that the user navigates to.

Six buttons in two rows: from left to right, top to bottom: Latest news posts, meal plan options, request more info, schedule a tour, student stories, and majors and minors.
Links and buttons

4. Write alt text for images

Higher education institutions have images on their websites. Having good image descriptions goes a long way to provide context to these images to students with disabilities. A screen reader user will not be able to understand the context of an image if there is no alternate text provided. The screen reader reads the description and helps the user to understand and gain a mental map about the context of the image.

A student in a denim jacket carries a backpack on one shoulder and a stack of books in one hand while walking outdoors.
Image alt text

5. Supplement videos with captions and descriptions

With classes moving online, videos such as classroom lectures should be accompanied by captions for students with disabilities.

Captions can either be closed which can be turned on or off based on a user’s preference, while open captions are always visible. While captioning is the ideal way to improve accessibility of videos, another way to improve accessibility is to pair each video with a detailed description and a text transcription (if available). This way students with visual and auditory impairments can still understand key takeaways even if they’re not able to watch the video as intended.

Closed captions and open captions logo.
Video captions

6. Choose high contrast colors for university websites

Design websites that have a minimum contrast ratio of 4:5:1 according to WCAG 2.0 requirements. This means that highly readable combinations like black text on a white background are prioritized over low contrast alternatives that might not be as visible for students with disabilities (think: yellow text on a white background, or white text over a pastel background).

Example of poor color contrast.
Example color contrast

7. Optimize the appearance and descriptions for charts and graphs

Most universities have charts and graphs to present data. They can be made more accessible by using color, pattern, texture, or varying line style to show the difference between different data points. Users with disabilities will find these accessible charts easier to understand.

Four vertical bar graphs, two on the left above each other have patterned graphs, the other two on the right have solid graphs.
Graphs and charts

8. Design forms with visible and accurate labels

On most higher education websites, visitors can fill out forms to request more information about the school, register for a campus tour, or connect with a member for the admissions team.

Here are a few tips to make forms more accessible:

Identifiable fields: Make forms easier to identify for users with disabilities by using outlines and/or color to distinguish between the fields.

Field labels: Each form field must have a form label visible near the corresponding field. In-field form labels (the kind that disappear once you start typing) should be avoided.

Intuitive submit button: Ensure that a submit button is positioned at the end of the form.

Clear error message: If the form contains required fields, make sure that missing information is identified by a clear error message. An example is to incorporate a visual indicator like a highlight or arrow along with a text reminder like “Last Name is a required field.”

A form shows fields for first name, last name, email address, and a submit button on the bottom right. Email address field is highlighted in red outline with a field below that reads: This field is required.
Form labels

9. Confirm keyboard accessibility

Not all visitors to higher education websites use a mouse or track pad to navigate. Many visitors with disabilities use keyboard controls to tab through the pages and interact online.

Websites must provide their content in an accessible manner to keyboard users. This includes focus indicators (visual cues which indicate the element that is currently selected), logical order on the web page, and testing the page for website accessibility.

Keyboard navigation using tab moves over four content panes for upfront strategy, branding and design, web development, and digital marketing.
Keyboard navigation

10. Testing the zoom feature of the browser

As per WCAG standard 1.4.4, students with disabilities should be able to zoom in on any page up to 200% without compromising on content or site performance. Higher education websites must be assessed for issues like text overlap, unusable menus, and features that get cut off when zoomed in.

Website in the foreground is zoomed in and zoomed out in the background.
Zoom feature

Conclusion

Accessible higher education websites are a win-win for all. Nowadays, most colleges and universities provide disabled accommodations such as wheelchair ramps, elevators, braille tags, door openers, accessible dorm rooms, etc. This shows the commitment of the institution to include students with disabilities into the broader discourse on campus.

Accessible websites provide the same experience online. It showcases the institutions commitment to inclusivity. There are no downsides here. Accessible websites incorporate all the features of a high impact site that is mindful of the different ways non-disabled users and users with disabilities access the web. Better still, good accessibility practices benefit everyone. Higher education institutions can start small by making minor changes such as adding alt text to images, improving color contrast on their websites and gradually expand to transform their online learning content into accessible digital documents that benefit the entire student population.