The world wide web is fundamentally designed to work for everyone, regardless of their hardware, software, language, culture, location, or ability, being ‘accessible to people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive ability’.1 Online learning, when designed with accessibility in mind, can significantly improve the educational experience of all students, particularly those with disability. However, if not designed to be accessible, it can also raise additional barriers to learning. The provision of information and online services through the web is covered by the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).2 Equal access for people with a disability in this area is required by the DDA where it can reasonably be provided.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 were released by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and present current international best practice in most areas of accessible web design. There are many general usability guidelines that make content more usable by all people, including those with disability. However, WCAG 2.0 only includes those guidelines that address problems particular to people with disability. WCAG 2.0 is organised around the following four principles of accessibility, with a total of 12 guidelines grouped under these principles:3
- Perceivable - information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive
- Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.
- Provide alternatives for time-based media.
- Create content that can be presented in different ways (for example simpler layout) without losing information or structure.
- Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background
- Operable - the user interface components and navigation must be operable; the interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform
- Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
- Provide users enough time to read and use content.
- Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures.
- Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.
- Understandable - information and the operation of user interface must be understandable
- Make text content readable and understandable.
- Make Web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
- Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
- Robust - content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of users, including assistive technologies; as technologies and user agents evolve, the content should remain accessible
- Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.
As the Australian Human Rights Commission writes, it is not required that web resources be restricted to plain black-and-white text; formats and content that can give increased functionality for some users, or increased scope for creativity by developers, are not discouraged or interdicted.4
Strategies for Accessibility
Whether involved in the writing of content, producing videos or commissioning others to produce content on the site, the accessibility of content should always be a priority. There are two main types of planning for web accessibility required: one for ensuring any existing web presence is made accessible, and one for ensuring that future web projects are accessible from the start.5 Many of the general rules utilised when writing are applicable to creating accessible web content:
- Use the features provided by the web course tool platform to organise and structure course content
- Use consistent navigation and logical structure in and across courses
- Put key information and instructions at the top of the page
- Ensure links, documents and folders are labelled meaningfully
- Avoid empty folders or topics. Keep them hidden until they are populated
- If web links or documents open in a new window, make sure that this is clearly indicated
- Ensure that documents, videos and audio loaded into the learning management system are accessible (Refer to Course Design for further information)
- Ensure tasks are clearly structured and explained
- Use tables, colours, contrasts and screen design consistently and appropriately
- Use consistent and appropriate graphics, illustrations and figures and include a text equivalent
- Be aware of the limitations of screen-readers in interpreting unusual text, characters and abbreviations
- Ensure web links are up-to-date; delete or update any ‘dead’ links
- Arrange for all students to have an induction on using the online learning platform their particular unit/program.
Regardless of how students access the information and what their abilities are, it is important that they have full access to the content and can interact with it. Universal design principles will also make content compatible with a wider range of technologies and allow everyone to view and interact with the content in the most comfortable environment.
Social networking technologies, such as Twitter and Facebook, are increasingly utilised within the educational sector to share information and connect with students. Although there are features of these technologies that are currently not fully accessible, they can be used in ways that enhance and possibly even allow participation by people with disability if general accessibility principles are followed.6 Seek expert accessibility advice about current best-practice approaches to the use of emerging technologies.
1 Lawton Henry, S. & McGee, L. (eds). (2013). Accessibility. W3C (MIT, ERCIM, Keio). Accessed 27 October 2014. Retrieved from http://www.w3.org/standards/webdesign/accessibility
2,4,6 Australian Human Rights Commission. (2010). World Wide Web Access: Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes Version 4.0. Accessed 27 October 2014. Retrieved from http://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/disability-rights/standards/world-wide-web-access-disability-discrimination-act-advisory
3 Caldwell, B., Cooper, M., Guarino Reid, L. & Vanderheiden, G. (eds). 2008. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. W3C Recommendation 11 December 2008. World Wide Web Consortium, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics, Keio University, BeiHang University). Accessed 27 October 2014. Retrieved from http://www.w3.org/TR/2008/REC-WCAG20-20081211/#contents
5 Access iQ. (2012). Planning for Accessibility. Accessed on 27 October 2014. Retrieved from http://www.accessiq.org/content/planning-for-accessibility (April 2020 - link is broken. Website no longer available)