Insights — The Five Classifications of Higher Ed Web Content Accessibility

The Five Classifications of Higher Ed Web Content Accessibility

Digital / July 11, 2021
Ben McCombs
Ben McCombs

Editor's Note: Our ongoing series about the Future of Higher Ed MarComms is focused on all of the topics that we believed were important pre-pandemic, but in a world permanently transformed by covid, have evolved to imperatives. 

Web accessibility may not immediately come to mind when thinking of the future of our industry. But as many institutions are redesigning their digital strategies to meet rapidly shifting consumer behavior, it's all the more important to consider how those assets ensure your institution remains equitable, inclusive, and accessible to all. 

More than ever before, a significant portion of our lives are experienced, managed, organized, or accessed online. From work emails to Netflix binges, paying bills to staying connected to old friends — we're online, almost constantly. But for users with physical and mental impairments, some barriers prevent the web from being totally accessible. While there are some helpful methods, tools, and devices that help eliminate some of these barriers, in order to maximize their effectiveness, websites need to first be built with web accessibility in mind. Building an inclusive and accessible website from the outset is not just a strategic and ethical choice — it's also pragmatic, as it's far easier than trying to remedy a site built without accessibility standards.

What Are the Best Practices for Building A Compliant Site?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a robust set of standards created and maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium, also known as W3C. W3C is an international organization that provides standards and guidelines for the web. WCAG categorizes impairments using the following classifications: auditory, cognitive, physical, visual, and speech. We will use these five classifications to illustrate barriers to accessibility and provide techniques and tools that make the web more inclusive and accessible to all people.

Auditory Web Accessibility Standards

Common Barriers to Auditory Accessibility
  • Video and audio content without captions or transcripts
  • Video/Media players that don't have volume control
  • Voice only activation services
  • Online support only available by phone
  • Notifications that only use audio
Accessibility Techniques & Tools for Auditory Web Accessibility Standards

Closed captioning, once difficult to incorporate into video content, is now automatically applied by media players like YouTube. YouTube uses machine learning to automatically provide closed captioning. This is available for both pre-recorded content and for live stream content. In addition, there are third-party transcription services available for audio and video content. Some of these services, such as Mind Rockets, provide sign language alternatives for web content. Video and other media players should always show volume controls so users with mild auditory impairments can easily modify the volume level.

Another important consideration is the use of web notifications and alerts. When triggering notifications and alerts, developers should use both audio and visual elements to make this content more easily understood and accessible. These also benefit individuals with auditory, cognitive, and visual impairments.

Cognitive Web Accessibility Standards

Common Barriers to Cognitive Accessibility
  • Moving, blinking, and scrolling content that cannot be disabled
  • Missing section headings and other structured content
  • Long-form text without images, graphs, or other visuals
  • Long, complex sentences that use words that are hard to understand
Accessibility Techniques & Tools for Cognitive Web Accessibility Standards

By default, content containing autoplay video, animations, or sound lasting longer than five seconds must include a pause or stop functionality. A common example is displaying a play/pause button on websites that utilize autoplay background video.

Focus order, or the logical order in which users can visually navigate through the web, is a powerful resource for individuals who have difficulty reading and other attention deficits. Web copy should be short, clear, and simple. Complex sentences structures should be avoided whenever possible. Using images, graphs, and other visuals can help break up and compliment long-form content.


Physical Web Accessibility Standards

Common Barriers to Physical accessibility
  • Websites without full keyword support
  • Forms or websites lacking focus order
  • Insufficient time limits to fill out forms
  • Missing section headings and other structured content
  • Overly complex navigation and page layouts
Accessibility Techniques & Tools for Physical Web Accessibility Standards

Many physical disabilities make navigating the web with a mouse or keyboard quite challenging. For those who can't use a mouse, full keyboard navigation is critical to navigating through a website. Keyboard navigation can also be beneficial for individuals with visual and cognitive impairments. In addition to keyboard navigation support, sites should use skip links as a way to bypass the main navigation, jump down to the main page content, or skip over repeatable elements that show up on each page. Individuals who can't use a keyboard or mouse may rely on voice recognition software or touch screen software.

Visual Web Accessibility Standards

Barriers to Visual Accessibility
  • Websites without full keyword support
  • Text, images, and graphs lacking sufficient contrast between the background and foreground colors
  • Text smaller than 12 pt
  • Missing section headings and other structured content
  • Missing alternative (alt) text for non-text content
  • Non-descriptive page titles
Accessibility Techniques & Tools for Visual Web Accessibility Standards

Screen readers and text-to-speech tools are widely used assistive technologies that can benefit individuals with visual or learning impairments. For screen readers to work properly, websites need to include section headings and other structured content. Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) labels should be used to provide accessible names for web elements, including menus, buttons, links, page landmarks, and interactive features. 

Alternative (alt) text refers to written text that describes images on a webpage. Alt text is not required in every context. For example, background images that only add design elements. Alt text should be no longer than a sentence or two and will be read to the user via screen readers.

Speech Web Accessibility Standards

Barriers to Speech Accessibility
  • Voice only interactions
  • Websites that offer phone numbers as the only way to communicate with the organization
Accessibility Techniques & Tools for Speech Web Accessibility Standards

Websites need to provide multiple means of communication. The rise of online chat services has helped decrease barriers to accessibility for individuals with speech impairments.

Following these guidelines to ensure your site is inclusive and accessible for anyone experiencing one or more of the five impairments isn't just best practice; it's federal law (at least for any institution accepting federal aid.) More importantly, in an increasingly digital world, it's about ensuring equity, inclusion, and access for everyone.

Ben McCombs is SimpsonScarborough's Senior Engineer / Developer and is part of our rapidly growing digital team. Ben attended Wittenberg University where he earned his B.A. in Business Marketing and lives in Columbus, OH with his wife. Likely the nicest front-end developer you'll ever meet, (that's not a knock on developers, Ben's just a ridiculously nice guy) read more about Ben and the rest of our team here.

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