Ryan Wieland

Why is Web Accessibility Important in Higher Education?

Higher education is an essential part of an individual’s career growth which makes it critical that everyone has equal opportunities to access it.

The COVID pandemic expanded access to solid internet connectivity, and the evolution of digital products has led to a significant rise in online learning and web-based education. This is extremely useful for students and educators living with disabilities as it has opened up many more opportunities for learning and skill development.

However, with great access comes much great responsibility.

It is essential to ensure that higher education and every learning opportunity are accessible to all, including those with disabilities.

This is where web accessibility and WCAG compliance come in.

The good news is this is not a new concept between long-standing guidelines put forth by the W3C and legal requirements under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Web accessibility, at the baseline level, refers to designing websites and web-based content in such a way that it can be accessed and used by all individuals, regardless of their abilities.

This blog will discuss the growing importance of web accessibility, specifically in higher education, including some key steps institutions can take to ensure their web-based content is accessible to all.

No Student Left Behind

Web Accessibility in Higher Education Accessibility is a fundamental principle when considering equal opportunities for all. Regardless of their abilities, every student should have equal opportunities to access and participate in every learning environment.

Web accessibility ensures that all students can access and use the web-based content provided by educational institutions. For instance, students with visual impairments can access web content through screen readers or other assistive technologies, while students with hearing impairments can access captioned videos or transcripts.

This makes learning accessible to all and ensures no student is left behind.

It is also important to outline that digital accessibility benefits educational institutions – especially with recent trends. By making their websites and all web-based content accessible, institutions can reach a wider audience, including students with disabilities who may have previously been unable to access admissions information or courses upon admission. 

This increases the institution’s diversity and promotes inclusivity – while also ensuring some of the brightest students in the world have a chance to shine through equal access. Additionally, web accessibility ensures that institutions comply with legal requirements such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. 

This is more important than ever with the recent agreement between the Department of Justice and UC Berkley, as this has fueled plaintiff activity aimed at higher education institutions not currently providing accessible web experiences.

5 Simple Steps to Drive Web Accessibility in Higher Ed

There are several steps to a robust and long-term accessibility plan for any institution. However, accessibility should always be viewed as a continuous process, as digital properties constantly evolve. The most critical step is simply committing to web accessibility and starting the process verse aiming for perfection out of the gate.

Here are some simple steps that higher education teams can take to jumpstart ensuring their web-based content is accessible to all students, parents, and educators:

  1. Provide Training for Web Teams: Web designers and developers should be trained in web accessibility guidelines and best practices. Often, these key team members who help ensure new content is built with accessibility in mind or manage ongoing updates to websites and web content do not have a background in WCAG Compliance. Providing them access to training and on-demand resources they can reference while building web content is critical for long-term success.
  2. Conduct an Audit: Institutions should conduct initial audits of their more highly trafficked websites and digital content to identify accessibility issues. This provides a baseline for their digital team members and a roadmap, with priorities, for driving WCAG Compliance for critical websites and web content. This testing should always include manual testing from auditors living with disabilities (such as native screen reader users) to ensure a robust outline of issues.
  3. Consider all Accessible Content Pieces: Web accessibility is not just for web-based pages. As part of any long-term plan, educational institutions should provide accessible content, such as PDFs or documents presented on websites or videos with closed captions and transcripts. This ensures equal access to all critical data and content for students with disabilities.
  4. Provide Access to Web Testing Tools (with Training): After auditing all critical websites and highly trafficked user flows, institutions should also provide their team with testing tools for at least checking new content additions to websites or real-time feedback on remediation they are performing. However, teams must be trained on the best way to leverage these tools to be efficient and effective in deploying automated testing while having access to resources that help them implement fixes properly.
  5. Involve your students: Although it provides a different experience level of testing, institutions should strongly consider involving students with disabilities in their overall accessibility roadmap. This empowers students to share their experiences and shows a firm commitment to diversity and inclusion. Students of varying disabilities can provide valuable feedback on the accessibility of web-based content and help institutions ensure that their processes and implementation are driving success.

At present, no educational institution would dispute that web accessibility is a vital aspect of ensuring overall student access and inclusion. It ensures that every student, including those with disabilities, has equal opportunities to access and participate in every learning experience. However, it is not always easy to drive compliance, usability, or even get an accessibility plan off the ground.

Hopefully, the included steps within this blog can help kickstart this journey. By doing so, educational institutions can promote inclusivity and ensure all students have equal opportunities to succeed.