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In order to assure that websites and web applications are accessible to and usable by everyone, designers and developers must follow web accessibility guidelines.

Web accessibility guidelines and standards

Web accessibility is standardized by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG ) 2.1, published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). WCAG 2.1 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

Within each of these four concepts,¬†WCAG 2.1 includes a variety of specific success criteria for measuring websites’ accessibility. Each of the success criteria is labeled with a level (A, AA, and AAA) that is a rough indicator of how critical the issue is.

Our goal at the University of Washington, as stated in the University of Washington IT Accessibility Guidelines, is to work toward meeting WCAG 2.1 at Level AA. To help the UW community to attain this goal, we have developed an IT Accessibility Checklist, designed to present WCAG principles in ways that are easy to understand and apply. Many of the WCAG principles apply to a variety of information technologies (IT), not just websites. Therefore, our checklist does as well. However, it especially applies to websites and offers a great way to learn more about web accessibility or to research specific techniques.

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 a subscription for Siteimprove, a powerful web-based tool that scans your site at regular intervals for broken links, spelling errors, and accessibility problems. See Siteimprove at UW for more information.
  4. Test with users. You can test your site by simply recruiting and observing 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 Help for more information.

Using UW-branded themes

The standard UW WordPress Theme has been created with accessibility in mind, and accessibility continues to improve through a close collaboration of University Marketing and Communications with UW-IT Accessible Technology Services. Website owners are encouraged to use this theme. Free WordPress hosting is also available for UW organizations.

Also, the UW Drupal community has created a Drupal version of the standard UW theme and has worked to include its same accessibility features. More information is available on the Community Themes and Modules wiki.

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. People 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. People 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. People 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. People with physical disabilities that affect their use of hands may be unable to use a mouse, and instead may rely exclusively on the keyboard or use assistive technologies such as speech recognition, head pointers, mouth sticks, or eye-gaze tracking systems.
  • Unable to hear. People who are deaf or hard of hearing are unable to access audio content, so video needs to be captioned and audio needs to be transcribed.
  • Using a mobile device. People who are accessing the web using a compact mobile device such as a phone face accessibility barriers, just like people 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. People 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. People who are very busy 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 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.