Web Accessibility: Guidelines for Administrators

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.
How administrators can promote web accessibility

Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and its amendments prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities and mandate that public programs and services be accessible to people with disabilities. Both the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights have issued rulings and statements that support the position that web content is covered by this legislation.

How can administrators in educational institutions, libraries, companies, and other organizations ensure that the websites their employees create and maintain are accessible to people with disabilities? Without technical expertise themselves, how do they direct their staff in this area? This publication provides guidance to non-technical administrators regarding how to ensure that websites in their organizations are accessible to everyone. 

What are the primary web accessibility issues?

It is important to consider that some website visitors:

  • cannot see graphics because of visual impairments,
  • cannot hear audio because of hearing impairments,
  • use slow Internet connections and modems or equipment that cannot easily download large files,
  • use assistive technology that emulates keyboard functions without the mouse, and
  • have difficulty navigating sites that are poorly organized with unclear directions because they have learning disabilities, speak English as a second language, or are younger than the average user.

People use a variety of technologies to access the web. For example, a person who is blind may use a speech output system that reads aloud text presented on the screen. A person with a mobility impairment may be unable to use a mouse and may rely on the keyboard for web browsing; they may use speech recognition software or an alternative keyboard. To help you and your staff understand how individuals with disabilities access web and other electronic resources, read the publication and view the video presentation: Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology.

People with some visual, hearing, or mobility impairments cannot access website resources that require the use of sight, hearing, or the mouse.

What is universal design?

To create resources that can be used by the widest spectrum of potential website visitors rather than an idealized average, webmasters can apply universal design principles. This requires that they consider the needs of individuals with disabilities, older persons, people for whom English is a second language, and those using outdated hardware and software. They should routinely think of the broad range of characteristics their site visitors might have and design it to make their resources accessible to everyone. This is the same approach that modern architects take in designing buildings; they build in ramps, elevators, accessible restrooms and other features to ensure that the facility will be accessible to individuals with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. Consult the following publication for more information about universal design: Universal Design: Process, Principles, and Applications.

What are examples of accessible web page design strategies?

To design an accessible website, your staff can avoid inaccessible data types and features or they can provide alternative methods and formats for content access. For example, since some PDF files can be inaccessible to people who are blind and using text-to-speech systems, you can avoid using PDF files on your website or you can provide text-based versions of the content along with the PDF documents. This practice provides benefits to non-disabled website users as well, including search capabilities. Applying universal design strategies to website design is not difficult, but does require learning about typical access challenges and their solutions. You and your staff can learn about accessible website design by reading the publication and viewing the following video presentation: World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design.

As is emphasized in these materials, designing a well-organized website helps visitors navigate through the information presented. A few other simple suggestions include the following:

  • Maintain a simple, consistent page layout throughout your site.
  • Keep backgrounds simple. Make sure there is enough contrast.
  • Use the most current HTML.
  • Include text descriptions for graphical elements.
  • Make link text descriptive so that it is understood out of context.
  • Use resizable fonts.
  • Provide a skip navigation link at the top of each page.
  • Design uncluttered pages.
  • Provide audio description or transcripts of video content.

You should notify site visitors that you are concerned about accessibility and encourage them to tell your technical staff of accessibility barriers. For example, the DO-IT home page includes the following statement:

"The DO-IT pages form a living document and are regularly updated. We strive to make them universally accessible. You will notice that we minimize the use of graphics and photos, and provide descriptions of them when they are included. Video clips are open-captioned, providing access to users who can't hear the audio. Suggestions for increasing the accessibility of these pages are welcome."

What accessibility standards exist that our organization can adopt?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) develops and maintains the protocols used on the web to ensure interoperability and promote universal access. The W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has developed guidelines for web authors. As Tim Berners-Lee, Director of the W3C puts it: "The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect."

Find out if your state, district, school, or other parent organization has adopted web accessibility guidelines or standards. If so, promote their use within your organization. If not, consider adopting a standard. Many organizations have adopted the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. You and your staff can learn more about them by accessing W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative.

What about video and other multi-media presentations on the web?

If your organization includes video clips, audio clips, or other multimedia on your website your staff should include captions on video presentations and transcripts for audio clips so that they can be accessed by individuals who are deaf. Captions also benefit those whose first language is not that used in the video, who wish to search for specific content, and who need to know the spelling of words used in the presentation. The following publications provides more detailed information:

Are accessible websites ugly and uncreative?

No. Saying that employing standards will create an unappealing website is like saying that a sturdy foundation under a building will result in an ugly structure. Both accessible and inaccessible websites can be ugly and boring. And,there are both accessible and inaccessible websites that are attractive and creative in design. Using standards, including accessibility standards, merely creates a foundation on which consistent websites are efficiently created and maintained.

Will complying with standards increase web development time?

Experienced web authors use standards of all sorts—for example, HTML (HyperText Markup Language), XHTML (Extended HyperText Markup Language), and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). Some time is needed to select and learn standards. But ultimately, applying standards can reduce development time. Standards-compliant web pages can be more quickly erected and updated and can be easily maintained and expanded by staff. Standards can ultimately lower development costs, lower maintenance costs, increase your organization's presence on the web, improve your organization's image, and expand your audience.

Can my organization use a web authoring tool to create accessible websites?

Yes. Any web authoring tool (e.g., Dreamweaver, FrontPage) can be used to create an accessible website; it can also be used to create an inaccessible one. Almost all web authoring tools have accessibility features built in, but some adjustment to the settings in the software default settings may be needed to produce compliant code. Form more information, consult Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines.

Can I check the accessibility of my organization's websites?

A thorough check of the accessibility of your websites to people with disabilities requires technical expertise. However, there are a few simple tests that administrators can employ to test for some accessibility features of websites. They include the following tests:

  • Turn off the graphics-loading feature of your web browser and access your website (for example, in Internet Explorer select "Preferences" on the tool bar; under "Web Browser" select "Web Content"; deselect "Show pictures"). The content you see is similar to that which will be read to a person who is blind by their text-to-speech software. Can you access the content of your website without the graphics images? On an accessible site, you can.
  • Check to see that all content presented in color can be understood if you could not distinguish one color from another.
  • Turn the sound off on your computer (for example, in Internet Explorer select "Preferences" on the tool bar; under "Web Browser" select "Web Content"; deselect "Play sounds"). Can you access all of the content? On an accessible site, you can.
  • Re-size font size (for example, in Internet Explorer, under the "View" menu, select "Text Zoom" and select a large font size). Do the font sizes on your website change? On an accessible site, they will.
  • Test to see if you can access all critical content and navigation on your website with the keyboard alone. On an accessible site, you can. Use the tab key to navigate through links and the enter key to perform an action.

What web accessibility tests can my technical staff use?

Your technical staff can test the usability of your websites with:

  • different computer platforms.
  • a variety of monitor sizes and screen resolutions, including a handheld display unit.
  • a variety of web browsers.
  • at least one text-based browser (e.g., Lynx) or multi-media browser with graphics-loading features turned off.
  • the display color changed to black and white.
  • the font changed to a different size.
  • a browser's sound-loading features turned off.
  • the keyboard alone.

In addition, technical staff can use accessibility testing software that will point out website content that could be inaccessible. There are many alternatives. See links to accessibility evaluation tools

Does accessible design benefit people without disabilities?

Yes, people using handheld display units, people in noisy or noiseless environments, those who speak English as a second language, people using different web browsers or screen resolutions, people using phone web services, and people with different learning styles can benefit from accessible web design.

What steps can I take to ensure the accessibility of my organization's website?

Designing an accessible website is not difficult, when accessibility is considered along with the other design issues considered at the beginning of a project. Redesigning an inaccessible site can be very time-consuming, and costly in the business world. Consider taking the following steps to ensure the accessibility of websites in your organization:

  • Select web accessibility guidelines or standards. Consider adopting standards or guidelines adopted by your state. See examples of web accessibility policies that have been adopted by states.
  • Require that web staff document web design standards and include within them standards for web accessibility. It is probable that the Webmaster in your organization is using standards of various types (e.g., HTML, XML, XHTML, CSS). If they haven't done so already, have them write up a document summarizing these standards, and include accessibility standards among them. If web development tools are used, require that designers apply the accessibility guidelines and features of these tools.
  • Disseminate web accessibility policy, guidelines, and procedures throughout the organization and provide regular training and support. Make sure everyone who works on website content and design understands the importance of accessibility and has the technical support they need to apply accessibility guidelines.
  • Consider developing a plan to phase in compliance with web accessibility guidelines for existing web pages, with a date at which all web pages will be compliant. Require that new pages meet accessibility guidelines. A good time to make web pages accessible is when they undergo a significant revision. Another approach is to make minimum accessibility updates (for example, put alternative text for simple graphics images throughout the organizations web pages) for all pages, with a more thorough update at the time of significant revisions to a specific site.
  • Put processes in place to ensure compliance with accessibility standards. Have technical staff develop a process for testing web pages for accessibility.
  • Place a statement on your home page that assures visitors of your commitment to providing accessible web resources. Inform visitors where to report accessibility barriers and to make requests for accommodations. Develop procedures for responding quickly to requests for disability-related accommodations and to repair accessibility problems with web pages.
  • Ensure web-development contracts offered by your organization require that the websites created meet accessibility standards. If you hire contractors to develop web resources for your organization, include a statement in the contract that requires that the web pages created meet your accessibility standards or guidelines.

Additional Resources


Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

The Center for Universal Design in Education 

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology)

NCAM (National Center for Accessible Media)

Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards (Section 508)

W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)

WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind)

About DO-IT

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington, and the U.S. Department of Education. DO-IT is a collaboration of UW Information Technology and the Colleges of Engineering and Education at the University of Washington.

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This publication is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement #HRD-0227995. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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