Accessibility Considerations for Web Content

Accessibility word cloud

Make web accessibility a priority

Our top concerns in planning web content should be our goals, message and audience. What are we saying, who are we saying it to, and why?

But with regard to our audience, we also need to consider the “how.” What devices are they using the view the content? Do they have limitations in perceiving certain content, such as visual or rich media? How do we publish content in a way that makes it available to the full range of our audience?

When we talk about web accessibility, we’re referring to the pursuit of giving users equal access to website information and functionality. If we want to communicate effectively, we have to publish web content in a way that prioritizes accessibility to as many audiences as possible. However, despite legal obligations and other pressing considerations, our organizations are often not structured to accomplish this. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to pursue—or have additional benefits that we may not initially perceive.

With these concerns in mind, how can we best plan for accessible web content? Meet Content reached out to four higher ed web professionals trying to make accessibility work at their institutions and asked them to share their perspectives.

A Tough Road to Hoe

1. What are some of the major obstacles and challenges for publishers in creating accessible content?

Chris Nixon, Director, Digital Design & Development, University Relations, University of Arkansas: The first step is really understanding what ‘accessible content’ means. The historical definition revolves around visually and hearing impaired, but I think we need to rethink the definition to include machines, those with rudimentary education and non-native speakers. The easy part is getting content on to a webpage. The hard part is training, or retraining, content authors to think about their content in a different way such that it makes sense to more people.

Terrill Thompson, Technology Accessibility Specialist, Information Technology University of Washington: The greatest challenge is that accessibility doesn’t happen automatically. Anyone who publishes content on the web needs to be familiar with accessibility principles and techniques. Otherwise, even if they choose a highly accessible delivery format such as HTML, their product isn’t necessarily accessible.

To meet this challenge we need to work diligently to build up an infrastructure that supports accessible publishing. We need to choose and use tools, including authoring tools, that support accessibility; we need to provide accessibility training to everyone involved in the publication workflow from authors to designers to developers; and we need to designate specific individuals or groups to acquire a relatively high level of accessibility expertise so they can provide support to the rest of the community.

Making Content Accessible

2. When planning web content projects and developing a content strategy, what accessibility issues should be taken into consideration and at what phase?

Nixon: Issues such as topic complexity, language and length are good starting places. If these areas are identified up front, then drafting and editing can be tailored to these considerations. Some content, like a research piece, needs to be somewhat complex, and typically includes videos and diagrams. Incorporating the gist of these multimedia components into the content can help readers get the full context without needing access to the multi-media components.

Thompson: Very early in the process of developing a content strategy (from the
moment an idea is born), we should already be asking: Who is the audience for this content? As soon as we ask this question, we need to consider the diverse characteristics of that audience. We might be able to make certain assumptions about their interest in the topic and their expected level of preexisting knowledge, but we can’t assume they all interact with content in the same way that we do, using the same devices and configurations.

  • Our audience might be using a desktop or laptop computer, a tablet, or a phone; they might be using any of a huge variety of screen resolutions, default font sizes, and custom color configurations.
  • They might be operating their device with keyboard, mouse, stylus, touch screen, speech input, or using various other “assistive” input technologies.
  • They might be perceiving the output visually, audibly using screen readers or text-to-speech software, or through touch using a Braille output device.
  • If there’s multimedia content they may or may no be able to hear the audio, either because they’re deaf or hard of hearing or because they didn’t bring their headset.

If we don’t consider diversity early on, it is typically much harder, and more costly, to change course and correct the problems later.

Rich Media Content: Thinking Beyond the Transcript

3. What accessibility considerations should we have in mind when planning rich media content (video, audio, etc.)?

Nixon: We need to think about alternative languages. This needs to be addressed based on who we expect our viewers to be beyond the obvious. We need to also think about the content that accompanies the video, thinking about SEO or any metadata that might help us related like media together. If we are publish music, what benefits might come from also publishing lyrics and sheet music?

Thompson: Another consideration is that video content needs to be accessible to people who can’t see it. Often they can get most of the content just by listening to the audio or reading the transcript, but if there’s important visual content that non-visual users are missing, that needs to be provided to the user in some way. There are various techniques for delivering that. It could be described within the transcript, but ideally a separate narration track will be produced that overlays the program audio and describes key visual information. This is called audio description, and there are media players out there that support it, but not all do.

Susan Ragland, Manager of Web Communications, Tarrant County College: I often remind our clients that accessibility is not only about visual impairments. Users may have dexterity disabilities, or need other assistive devices. Providing a transcript may legally keep us in compliance, but I think we need to be able to provide rich experiences on our site whenever possible. I think we’re currently limited by tools, resources and client understanding.

Stephani Roberts, Web Accessibility Consultant, Information Services and Technology, MIT: Transcripts are great for audio but video should have full captions. And if you’re starting with a transcript, creating captions is a lot easier to implement. They benefit a wide audience serving non-native speakers in addition to deaf and hearing-impaired people. They also reinforce key learning concepts by tying together aural and visual understanding and give students the opportunity to stop and review the content.

Here, departments who’ve added captions to their videos have found that people are staying and watching the captioned videos longer than their uncaptioned video. As a bonus, search engines can index the full content of videos rather than just their titles or key words; so, rich media that’s captioned is more likely to be found via search.

Case Studies

4. Can you share an example of a successful effort to increase web content accessibility and how that was achieved?

Thompson: The example that comes to mind isn’t an individual website, rather
it’s our overall effort to increase web accessibility at the University of Washington. We still have a long way to go before we’re fully accessible, and 100 percent accessibility is probably an unrealistic goal for any large decentralized institution like ours. Nonetheless, I do consider our efforts to be successful so far in that we’re making progress, and more and more people are getting involved in the effort.

In 2003 we launched an email-based discussion list called AccessibleWeb, which provided a channel for discussing web accessibility. That was a small niche group at first, but now there are over 160 people subscribed to that list from across the university. There’s also a face-to-face university-wide meetup once a month to discuss accessibility topics, share ideas and techniques, brainstorm and collaborate. For a while we were using that venue to host “Access Hack” sessions, where people would submit their website and the community would provide friendly but constructive feedback on the site’s accessibility, including code-level solutions.

I think for an organization to integrate accessibility into everything it produces, universal design has to be part of the culture, and supported by the community.

Roberts: We had an international non-profit site that contained important statistical
information in the form of graphs and pie charts. Donations hinged on understanding this information, but it wasn’t very clear due to color issues and labeling. We were able to come up with a color scheme that worked for people with color blindness and we added better labels to help clarify and give context to the data presented. This reduced email questions about the site’s content and allowed for improved translation to other languages.

Ragland: We’re often required to publish PDF forms and other documents, especially regarding our Board of Trustees. When I was told we would have to begin publishing all supporting documents prior to a Board meeting, I met with the vice chancellor in charge of organizing the materials, and we set into place a process whereby the various administrators would not simply supply me with scanned PDFs of documents wholesale; if it was an internally created document, I wanted the original Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc. so I could convert them myself, ensuring better accessibility.

What else should we do to plan for accessible content? What are other concerns should we keep in mind? We hope to dig deeper into this topic over time and would love to hear your ideas about what merits further discussion. In the meantime, here are some helpful resources:

  • This year’s HighEdWeb Arkansas regional conference (July 26-27 in Little Rock, Ark.) features a half-day workshop on accessibility, presented by Glenda Sims.
  • In November 2010, Eric Stoller appeared on Higher Ed Live to discuss web accessibility in higher education. The post includes several helpful accessibility links.
  • The W3C offers a great introduction to web accessibility.

Photo by sunraven0 / Flickr Creative Commons

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »


  1. Thanks Georgy for highlighting the need to consider accessibility when developing website content. I look forward to future articles on accessibility. Glad to see Terrill Thompson included in your article; Terrill’s website is one of the resources I visited when I first became interested in accessibility.

    For anyone wanting to stay current on accessibility discussions, I suggest subscribing to WebAIM’s mailing list at It’s a very active list, but covers various topics including content, markup, PDFs, and more.

    • Thanks so much for adding the WebAIM link. And if you have any suggestions about areas where we should dig deeper on this topic going forward, please let us know.

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