The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a rise in lawsuits from students with disabilities. Per a report from Diverse, digital accessibility lawsuits increased by 17 times for higher education institutions in July and August of 2020 as compared to the first half of the year. As more classes have adopted online-only coursework, accessibility barriers have become a much broader problem for instructors, students, and applicants.
Needless to say, for colleges and universities, web accessibility is a crucial priority. Accessible web design can help to limit the chances of litigation — and more importantly, an accessible mindset allows higher education providers to offer a better suite of services.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a framework that higher education institutions can utilize to create more useful content. In this article, we’ll use the WCAG standards to address some common accessibility issues that colleges, universities, and other educational institutions often encounter.
Keyboard accessibility issues can create frustrations for people with disabilities
Many people with disabilities navigate the internet using a keyboard only (without a mouse). Unfortunately, many e-learning portals create barriers for these users by making key mistakes. If certain controls can’t be operated by keyboard alone — for instance, a drop-down menu on a testing app — the user will be unable to complete the process.
For example, if a college’s website doesn’t provide a clear visual indicator of which element has the current focus, students won’t know which control or link they’re selecting. Visible focus is addressed under WCAG Success Criteria (SC) 2.4.7, “Focus Visible.”
Keyboard traps are another type of severe accessibility issue. A keyboard trap occurs when a user cannot change focus with typical keyboard commands. In other words, the user navigates to a form field (or other element) and can’t use their keyboard to leave the field. WCAG SC 2.1.2, “No Keyboard Trap,” recommends resolving these issues or, at the minimum, advising the user of another method for moving the focus away.
When these issues affect key pages on a higher education website (such as application forms, e-learning tools, and payment portals), students feel frustrated and overlooked. Most keyboard accessibility barriers can be remediated easily, but institutions need to be aware of them in order to fix them.
Missing or inaccurate alt text can create barriers for students
Missing alternative text (also called alt text) is a common accessibility issue for all websites — not just higher education websites. If a user is unable to perceive a visual element, the alternative text explains the function of the element. Alternative text is addressed by WCAG SC 1.1.1, “Non-text Content.”
Appropriate alt text has numerous benefits: In addition to expanding your website’s audience, alt text can provide users with stand-in content if images fail to load. Alt text is a key factor in search engine optimization (SEO), and it’s fairly easy to implement.
Every visual element needs relevant alternative text. However, it’s equally important to write alt text accurately; simply providing a boilerplate description won’t provide students with useful information.
Many sites rely on automated accessibility software for testing
Accessibility software can find many WCAG violations. However, automated tools have limitations. For example, an automated accessibility test might identify missing image alt text, but most tools can’t identify whether alt text is accurate to the image.
If a college publishes a picture of its campus and tags the image with the description, “picture of buildings,” the photo may pass the automated scan — but the alt text has accessibility issues, since it’s not descriptive of the image and it uses unnecessary language (the “picture of" text is unnecessary, since most screen readers will tell users that they’re encountering an image).
Likewise, automated tools can’t effectively determine whether content is clear, concise, and appropriate for the page. A college’s engineering web page may use several complex terms, which would fail an automated accessibility test — but those terms may be essential within the context.
Trained accessibility consultants can provide the guidance that institutions need to find all WCAG conformance issues and create appropriate remediation strategies. Testing should include both manual and automatic testing, and people with disabilities should be involved in the process.
Higher education websites miss opportunities to provide options
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 19 percent of undergraduates in 2015-2016 reported having a disability. Those disabilities can affect browsing behavior in hundreds of ways, and higher education providers need to utilize the widely accepted standards of WCAG in order to provide reasonable accommodations.
However, the purpose of digital accessibility isn’t to avoid litigation — that’s one of the benefits of an accessible approach, but it’s not the guiding factor. Accessible higher education websites can attract a larger number of talented students and help them learn more effectively.
To that end, many colleges and universities have implemented features that aren’t strictly required under WCAG. Features like dark mode, accessible help resources, and font options can make a website much more intuitive. These features need to be implemented carefully to ensure that they don’t create new accessibility barriers.
The WCAG framework is essential for creating a web accessibility initiative that delivers long-term results; by following a principle-based approach, designers and developers can create content that functions with different types of technologies and input methods. The benefits are enormous: Accessible college websites can reduce the long-term costs of website maintenance, attract more students, and create more fulfilling digital learning environments.