Web accessibility is crucial in digital education, as it lays the groundwork for creating inclusive digital resources, including office documents, PDFs, and EPUBs, by adhering to accessibility standards and best practices. Additionally, a significant number of educational applications rely on web technologies or are integrated within websites. As university staff, it is important to understand and implement web accessibility to provide an inclusive and accessible digital education experience for all students.
- Web accessibility essentials
While web accessibility is a complex topic with significant implications for end-users, university staff who may not be IT experts or particularly skilled in this field can still make a difference. Even a basic understanding of the accessibility issues that websites may present can be enough to contribute to more inclusive digital solutions. Following are presented 4 of the most impactful web accessibility issues:
- Accessible content: Web accessibility means making sure everyone can access and understand the content on a website, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. For example, a person with a learning disability may need clear, simple language to understand the text on a web page.
- Alternative text: Also known as "alt text", is a brief description added to an image that helps people who use screen readers (often used by those with visual impairments) understand the context of the image. Imagine someone who is blind trying to understand a graph without a description; alternative text can provide this necessary information.
- Colour contrast: Good colour contrast ensures that people with colour vision deficiencies can distinguish text from the background. A user with colour-blindness might struggle to read a website with low contrast between text and background colours.
- Accessible multimedia: Providing captions for videos and transcripts for audio content ensures that those with hearing impairments can access the information. For example, a person who is deaf can read the captions on a video to understand the content being presented.
- Basic web accessibility checking
Checking the accessibility of web content should be included in the workflow for the creation and delivery of digital educational material since this ensures that everyone, including people with disabilities, can access, understand, and use it. By making websites and web content accessible, we create an inclusive digital education environment for everyone, including those who use assistive technologies.
In order to perform an accessibility assessment you may start by using automated accessibility testing tools to identify potential issues.
Some examples of such tools are:
- WAVE by WebAIM: A browser extension and online tool that provides a visual representation of accessibility issues on a web page, along with detailed explanations and suggestions for improvements.
- Accessibility Insights: Developed by Microsoft, this tool offers automated and guided accessibility testing for Android tablets and phones, windows applications and for web, which is available as a browser extension for Chrome and Edge.
However, mind that there are many aspects of web accessibility that require human judgment and understanding of the context, which automated tools cannot fully replicate. For example, automated tools can check if an image has alternative text, but they can't determine if the text is meaningful or accurate. Similarly, some accessibility issues, like the logical order of content, the clarity of instructions, or the overall usability of a site, need a human to assess them. That's why combining automated testing with manual testing and user feedback is essential for ensuring a truly accessible website.
- Manual web accessibility checking
Following is a non-complete list of manual checks that you may use to have a more reliable accessibility assessment:
- Alternative text: Ensure that all images, diagrams, and other non-text elements have appropriate and descriptive alt text to convey their meaning to visually impaired users.
- Alternative means for multimedia content: Verify that audio and video content has captions, transcripts, or audio descriptions to accommodate users with hearing or vision impairments.
- Colour contrast: Check the contrast ratio between text and background colours to ensure that content is easily readable for users with low vision or colour blindness. Some tools that you may use for this are: Color Contrast Checker by WebAIM and Colour Contrast Analyser (CCA) by TPGi.
- Navigation: Test that all site navigation elements are accessible, logical, and clearly labelled to allow users to easily find their way around the website.
- Headings: They are like titles and subtitles in a book or article. They help break up the content into smaller sections and make it easier to understand what each section is about. Therefore, not only to improve the readability but also enabling an efficient navigation it is necessary to examine the structure and hierarchy of headings to ensure they are used properly and convey the organisation of content.
- Links: Review all links to ensure they are descriptive and make sense when read out of context, providing users with a clear understanding of their destination.
- Keyboard-only: Navigate through the website using only a keyboard (without a mouse) to ensure that all interactive elements are accessible and functional for users with mobility impairments.
- Forms: Test forms for accessibility by checking that all fields are properly labelled, required fields are marked, and error messages are clear and informative for users.
- Fonts: Verify that the font type, size, and spacing are readable and user-friendly, and ensure that users can easily adjust the font size if needed for better readability.
- Resources for web accessibility.
It can be problematic and overwhelming finding reliable sources of information about web accessibility, there are some in which you may find information about specific related topics.
- W3C - WAI & WCAG: The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main international organisation for web standards, and its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) provides guidelines and resources for web accessibility. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of recommendations created by WAI to help make web content more accessible for people with disabilities.
- WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind): This is a leading resource for web accessibility information, tools, and training. They provide resources such as articles, checklists, and software to help developers and designers create accessible websites.
- Accessibility directive (EU) & Section 508 (USA): The European Union has an Accessibility Directive that sets accessibility requirements for public sector websites and mobile apps. Similarly in the United States, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Both of these regulations provide guidelines and resources to ensure web accessibility for government and public sector websites. See: Legal requirements
- A11Y community. There are A11Y projects, blogs, and resources dedicated to promoting and sharing best practices for creating accessible web content. Just pay attention to the quality of such resources and avoid getting confused by discussions about very specific accessibility issues. E.g. Index of project and resources by The Accessibility Project.