Developing accessible websites

In order to assure that websites and web applications are accessible to and usable by everyone, designers and developers must follow web accessibility guidelines. Each of the following topics address issues that are especially common on UW websites. See also our annotated list of web accessibility Tools and Resources.

Features of accessible websites

Additional information is available on the AccessComputing website 30 Web Accessibility Tips.

Checking a website for accessibility

You can go a long way toward assuring your website is accessible by following these simple steps:

  1. Validate your HTML. If HTML is used incorrectly, assistive technology can have problems interpreting the page content, which can result in access problems for users. Use an HTML validator to check your code.
  2. Test with a keyboard. Set your mouse aside and use the tab key to navigate through your web pages. You should be able to access all interactive features (e.g., menus, links, form fields, buttons, controls) and operate them by pressing Enter, space, arrow keys or other intuitive keystrokes. If you are unable to access some of your site’s features, your site is likely to have accessibility problems.
  3. Use an accessibility checker. There are several free online tools that will check your web pages for accessibility.  See our Tools and Resources page for an annotated list. Also, the UW has an enterprise license for SiteImprove, a powerful tool that scans your site at regular intervals for broken links, spelling errors, and accessibility problems. More information on SiteImprove will be added to this site soon.
  4. Test with users. The UW’s Laboratory for Usability Testing and Evaluation (LUTE) provides a controlled setting for conducting usability tests, and is available by reservation to the UW community. You could also test your site less formally by simply recruiting and observe users as they interact with your site. To test for accessibility, recruit users who have a variety of skill levels and characteristics, such as those listed below under the heading What Is Accessibility?
  5. Ask for help. The UW community is actively working toward the goal of full accessibility for all visitors to its websites. Since we’re all working together toward this goal, there are many in the community who are happy to help. See Getting Help with Accessibility for more information.

Developing accessible sites using WordPress

UW Marketing has created a UW WordPress Theme with input from UW-IT Accessible Technology Services. The theme includes a variety of accessible features, and accessibility is an ongoing consideration as features are added or updated. Therefore, web owners are encouraged to use this theme. Free WordPress hosting is also available for UW organizations.

WordPress is an easy-to-use, highly flexible content management system for creating and managing websites. Its functionality can be extended with any of several hundred widgets and plugins that are freely available. However, widgets and plug-ins can also introduce accessibility problems to a site, so you should select these very carefully. See How to Select Accessible WordPress Widgets and Plug-Ins for additional help.

What is web accessibility?

People who use the web have a growing variety of characteristics. As web developers, we can not assume that all our users are accessing our content using the same web browser or operating system as we are, nor can we assume they’re using a traditional monitor for output, or keyboard and mouse for input. Consider these user characteristics:

  • Unable to see.  Individuals who are blind use either audible output (products called screen readers that read web content using synthesized speech) or tactile output (a refreshable Braille device).
  • Has dyslexia. Individuals with learning disabilities such as dyslexia may also use audible output, along with software that highlights words or phrases as they’re read aloud using synthesized speech.
  • Has low vision. Individuals with low vision may use screen magnification software that allows them to zoom into all or a portion of the visual screen. Many others with less-than-perfect eyesight may enlarge the font on websites using standard browser functions, such as Ctrl + in Windows browsers or Command + in Mac browsers.
  • Has a physical disability. Individuals with physical disabilities that effect their their use of hands may be unable to use a mouse, and instead may rely exclusively on keyboard or use assistive technologies such as speech recognition, head pointers, mouth sticks, or eye-gaze tracking systems.
  • Unable to hear. Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing are unable to access audio content, so video needs to be captioned and audio needs be transcribed.
  • Using a mobile device. Individuals who are accessing the web using a compact mobile device such as a phone face accessibility barriers, just like individuals with disabilities do. They’re using a small screen and may need to zoom in or increase the font size, and they are likely to be using a touch interface rather than a mouse. Also, Apple’s iPhone and iPad do not support Adobe Flash.
  • Limited bandwidth. Individuals may be on slow Internet connections if they’re located in a rural area or lack the financial resources to access high-speed Internet. These users benefit from pages that load quickly (use graphics sparingly) and transcripts for video.
  • Limited time. Very busy individuals may have too little time to watch an entire video or audio recording, but can quickly access its content if a transcript is available.

An accessible website works for all of these users, and countless others not mentioned.

The W3C summarizes web accessibility nicely in their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. WCAG 2.0 is organized into the following four key concepts:

  • Web content must be perceivable
  • Web content must be operable
  • Web content must be understandable
  • Web content must be robust

There are many possible approaches to attaining accessibility as defined by these four concepts. The pages of this website were designed to help.

The following video, produced by UW-IT Accessible Technology Services, features university web designers and developers, including several from the UW, discussing the importance of creating websites that are accessible to all users.

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