Accessibility Makes Every Site Better for Everyone

Date Created: 5/6/2014 2:07:56 PM

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It would be hard to make the case these days that a university exists purely as a physical entity. Bricks and mortar make up NAU, to be sure, but its presence is enlarged considerably by its Web presence—in fact, it can be said that the virtual NAU is coequal with the Flagstaff mountain campus in the living fact of the university. When it comes to making services accessible to all people, both the physical plan of the university and its virtual landscape must be designed properly, and this directly affects what we do in Information Technology Services.

Teresa Haven, Accessibility Analyst with the Office of Affirmative Action, addressed members of the WebTech and Learning and Professional Development teams about best practices in Web design and development with regard not only to people with disabilities, but users in general. For developers and trainers, it was a consciousness-raising experience in three parts: first by raising awareness of the challenges faced by as many as 20 percent of the population; secondly by demonstrating the current technologies like JAWS for Windows and Apple’s VoiceOver and Switch Control for addressing these challenges; and finally by directing attention to the resources, standards, and tools that enable developers to successfully expand access to new Web applications to the greatest extent possible.

As a simple experiment, consider filling out an online registration form for a summer course. Easy enough with labeled text fields that direct what information to input. But what if all those labels were removed? How would you know to put your name in the name field, or your student ID in its designated field? This is identical to the challenge someone with visual impairment could face if a website is not properly coded.

Fortunately, resources are plentiful for guiding developers and designers toward the construction of accessible websites, among them Microsoft’s Accessibility in Visual Studio and ASP.NET and W3’s recommendations and guidelines.

Accessibility considerations benefit not only individuals with disabilities but typically provide a broader usability to sites for all users. What we learn from developing more accessible websites becomes even more critical toward exploiting new technologies like voice command, eye-tracking software, and gesture-based systems. Best practices for accessible websites are simply best practices for all websites.