Universal Design of Web Pages

As you prepare to teach preservice or inservice instructors about accessible web design, consider the example below.


After this presentation, educators and administrators will be more aware of:

  • potential barriers to information access on websites for students with disabilities
  • their institution's legal responsibilities for ensuring equal access to information presented on websites
  • universal design guidelines for developing accessible websites
  • universal design principles for developing websites and other electronic resources


Approximately 45-60 minutes.


Department chair, educator, staff, TA, student, or other department member who has an understanding of technology used by students who have disabilities and of key elements of accessible website design. This presentation may be presented or co-presented by a staff member of the unit responsible for providing academic accommodations for students with disabilities and a website developer.


  • Select the presenter(s).
  • Develop presentation outline and activities using the "Sample Script" provided in this section and the ideas listed in the Presentation Tips section of this notebook.
  • Create presentation sides from provided templates.
  • Add the contact information for campus resources to the "Resources" slide and to printed publications as appropriate.
  • Photocopy the handout templates Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology, World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design, Web Accessibility: Guidelines for Administrators (optional), and Student Abilities Profile. Create alternative formats as necessary.
  • Photocopy the presentation evaluation instrument to distribute at the end of the session (see pages 239-241 for examples) or create your own.
  • Add links to your department's website to AccessSTEM, the Faculty Room, and to the Center for Universal Design in Education.

Equipment and Tools

  • DVD player and monitor
  • video projector, computer, and presentation slides; Internet connection (optional)
  • videos (open captioned and audio described versions of Computer Access: In Our Own Words and World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design)
  • handouts (Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology, World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design, Web Accessibility: Guidelines for Administrators (optional), and Student Abilities Profile (optional)
  • presentation evaluation instrument (pages 239-241)

Presentation Outline

  1. Distribute handouts.
  2. Introductions.
  3. Begin presentation.
  4. Introduce and play videos as noted in the script.
  5. Discuss universal design, accessible website design, and possible accommodations at your school.
  6. Discuss policies and procedures (optional).
  7. Discuss case study (optional).
  8. Note resources.
  9. Distribute and collect completed evaluation instruments.


For further preparation resources for this presentation, consult

Sample Script

[Distribute handouts Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology and World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design.]

Today we'll be discussing the universal design of websites to allow access to information for all people, regardless of their abilities or disabilities.

The objectives of today's presentation are to:

  • list potential barriers to accessing information on web pages for students with disabilities
  • describe the institution's legal responsibility to ensure access to information presented on web pages
  • describe universal design guidelines for developing accessible web pages

The Internet is a popular tool for educators. Faculty members can post syllabi and other course materials on websites. They can also provide links to useful resources for students. Much of the Internet's power comes from the fact that it presents information in a variety of formats while also cataloging information in a searchable manner. Unfortunately, due to the multimedia nature of the web, combined with the poor design of some websites, many students and other web users cannot use the full range of resources this revolutionary tool provides.

For example, some visitors cannot see graphics because of visual impairments or cannot hear audio because of hearing impairments. Some users 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. Other visitors use older equipment or slow connections or modems that limit access to multimedia features.

Some students use adaptive (or assistive) technology with their computer to access the web. For example, a student who is blind may use a speech output system to read aloud text that is presented on the screen. This system may be composed of screen reading software and a voice synthesizer. A person with a mobility impairment may not be able to use a mouse and therefore relies on the keyboard for web browsing.

We will now view a video in which individuals discuss various ways that they access computers, some using adaptive technology.

It is important to keep in mind that the people in this video might be accessing your website. To create resources that can be used by the widest spectrum of potential visitors rather than an idealized average, website designers should apply universal design principles. They should consider the special needs of individuals with disabilities, individuals older or younger than the average user, people for whom English is a second language, and those using outdated hardware and software.

Legal Issues

Ensuring that individuals with disabilities have access to computing resources can be argued on ethical grounds. Some simply consider it to be the right thing to do. Others are more responsive to legal mandates.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires that people with disabilities be given the same access to public programs and services, including educational programs, that are offered to people without disabilities.

The ADA is civil rights legislation that reinforces and extends the requirement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that "no otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities shall, solely by reason of their disabilities, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in any program or activity of a public entity." When people think of the ADA, they often think of elevators in buildings, reserved spaces in parking lots, and lifts on buses. However, the ADA accessibility requirements apply to people with all types of disabilities and to all programs and resources offered at our institutions, including those offered using computers and the Internet.

Disabilities covered by legislation include, but are not limited to, spinal cord injuries, loss of limbs, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, hearing impairments, visual impairments, speech impairments, learning disabilities, head injuries, psychiatric disorders, diabetes, cancer, and AIDS. The conditions listed may limit people's abilities to perform specific tasks. Some of these conditions are readily apparent; some are invisible. Some affect computer use; some do not.

Additionally, some students who have the same diagnosis may have very different abilities when it comes to performing specific tasks. For example, one student who has cerebral palsy may have difficulty walking. For another student, cerebral palsy may result in no functional use of his or her hands or voice. Ultimately, a student who has a disability requires accommodations only when faced with a task that requires a skill that his or her disability precludes. This may include computer access.

The Department of Justice has clarified that the ADA applies to Internet resources in that, "covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services, must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well."

As more information is delivered using network technologies, postsecondary faculty and administrators play an increasingly important role in ensuring that everyone has access to resources provided via the Internet.

A good place to begin discussing accessible web design is with the principles of universal design.

Universal Design

Designing a product or service involves the consideration of myriad factors that include aesthetics, engineering options, environmental issues, safety concerns, and cost. One issue that designers often overlook is that of universal design.

In general, universal design means designing products and services that can be used by people with a range of characteristics, abilities, and disabilities.

Universal design is defined by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." At the center, a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers collaborated to establish a set of principles of universal design to provide guidance in the design of environments, communications, and products.

General principles of universal design include the following: the design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities; the design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities; the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities; the design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue; and appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility.

Electronic resources that are universally designed provide multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement.

When designers apply these principles, their products meet the needs of potential users with a wide variety of characteristics. Disability is just one of these characteristics. For example, one person could be male, tall, fifteen years old, a poor reader, and blind. All of these characteristics, including blindness, should be considered when developing a product he might use.

Universal design techniques can be applied in the design of packaging, software, appliances, transportation systems, physical spaces, and many other products, services, and environments. Examples of universal design in architecture are ramps, automatic door openers, and Braille labels on elevator control buttons. Following universal design principles in creating a website provides access to all users regardless of their abilities, their disabilities, or the limitations of their equipment and software.

Accessible Website Design

When universal design principles are applied to the design of web pages, people using a wide range of adaptive technology can access them. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an industry group founded in 1994 that develops common protocols which enhance interoperability and guide the evolution of the web, has taken a leadership role in this area. The W3C is committed to promoting the full potential of the Internet to ensure a high degree of usability by people with disabilities.

As stated by Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web, "The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect." The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) coordinates W3C's efforts with organizations worldwide to promote accessibility. Its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines tell how to design web pages that are accessible to people with a wide variety of disabilities.

In response to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board has established standards for the procurement, development, and use of technology by federal agencies. One section establishes standards for designing accessible websites. Although the legislation applies directly to federal agencies, the standards are being used as guidelines by many institutions who want to ensure that they are compliant with the ADA.

Now we'll watch a video presentation, World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design. This presentation shares access issues and solutions for people with disabilities. The content of this presentation is included in your handout with the same title.

To create pages that are accessible, website developers must either avoid certain types of data and features or create alternative methods for carrying out the functions or accessing the content that is provided using the inaccessible feature or format.

When it is not possible to use an accessible technology, an alternative version of the content should be provided. However, web page designers should resort to separate, accessible pages only when other solutions fail. Maintaining a separate page is time consuming. Alternative pages tend to be updated less frequently than "primary" pages and, therefore, often provide outdated information to the site visitors using them.

Besides practicing universal design guidelines in developing your websites, encourage feedback about accessibility from web visitors.

Notify your website visitors that you are concerned about accessibility by including a statement about accessibility on your page. Encourage your users to notify you with their accessibility concerns. For example, the DO-IT home page includes this statement:

"The DO-IT pages form a living document and are regularly updated. We strive to make them universally accessible. 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, and audio described for those who cannot see the visual display. Suggestions for increasing the accessibility of these pages are welcome."

Test your website with as many web browsers as you can, and always test your website with at least one text-based browser, and with the audio and graphics turned off. This way, you will see your web resources from the perspectives of people with sensory impairments.

Test your website with accessibility testing programs. These programs provide a report of accessibility barriers to your site. Several are referenced in your handout. Finally, test your website using the keyboard alone to determine if you have full access to the information without using a mouse.

Benefits to Everyone

If universal design principles are employed in website development, other people besides individuals with disabilities will also benefit from the design. They include people working in noisy or noiseless environments; people whose hands or eyes are occupied with other activities; people for whom English is a second language; people using older, outdated equipment; and people using monochrome monitors.

The Internet is just one example of an electronic resource that students with disabilities may need to access for their courses. When purchasing and designing other electronic resources, such as software and indexes, consider whether these resources will be accessible to students utilizing adaptive technology.

Policies and Procedures (optional)

[Distribute handout Web Accessibility: Guidelines for Administrators.] Instructional and administrative websites should be developed with universal access as a goal. Accessibility guidelines should be incorporated into general campus website guidelines or standards.

The standards your school adopts could be those developed by the WAI of the W3C, those used by the federal government in response to Section 508 legislation, or a list tailored to your school. When choosing standards or guidelines it is best to gain high level support and include all key stakeholders (including students with disabilities, faculty, administrators, and web designers) in the process.

A task force can then draft policy and select guidelines. They can develop dissemination plans and recommendations for the provision of training and support. They can also recommend how the policy might be enforced and how compliant sites will be rewarded. Policies and procedures should be evaluated and revised on a regular basis.

Discussion Questions

[Ask participants the following or similar questions for discussion.]

  • What are the ethical and legal issues related to providing students with disabilities access to instructional web pages?
  • How would you respond to administrative concerns related to the added costs involved in making departmental web pages accessible to people with disabilities?
  • In our institution, who should be responsible for ensuring that institutional, departmental, and faculty web pages are accessible to individuals with disabilities?
  • What are the benefits of employing universal design principles rather than focusing only on disability issues?

Case Study

[Consider discussing a case study from the Student Abilities Profiles included in the Accommodation Strategies section of this notebook on pages 45-70 or from the AccessSTEM Knowledge Base]


As our program comes to an end, what was the most significant insight or question you had today? Please feel free to share a brief comment with the group.

I hope this program has given you a clear understanding of the impact that the combination of computers, adaptive technology, and electronic resources can have on the lives of people with disabilities. Faculty and administrators have a legal responsibility to ensure equitable access to resources and services. The information provided in this program should have given you tools to begin implementing universal design principles when developing and updating websites. Applying these guidelines will help level the playing field for people with disabilities.

[Distribute and collect completed evaluation instruments.]


Here are some online resources that might be useful to you as you work to increase the accessibility of your web content. [Elaborate.]

For comprehensive information on accommodations, a wide range of case studies, frequently asked questions, and general resources, visit the AccessSTEM website. Other online resoures include the Faculty Room and the Center for Universal Design in Education. [Arrange to provide links from your campus' department website before the presentation.] Consider linking to these websites from your department's website.

Thank you for your time today and for your interest in finding ways to ensure that all of the students in our programs have equal opportunities to learn, explore interests, and express ideas.