These days, it is easier than ever before to access all kinds of information and services online. From work and education, to healthcare services and entertainment, people are increasingly reliant on visiting a number of different websites to run their daily lives. For a significant minority of disabled web users, however, accessibility challenges still remain. These challenges are for the most part caused by a relatively small handful of easily resolved accessibility oversights. At first glance some of these oversights, such as lack of closed captioning, lack of alt text on images, and lack of headings, may appear somewhat unimportant and of little consequence to your website’s overall purpose and functionality.
Appearances can be deceptive, however, as in reality accessibility details, however small they may seem, are absolutely critical to ensuring the quality of your online presence. Indeed, they can in fact make the difference between your site being usable or completely useless for millions of potential visitors.
With so many of our day-to-day activities, resources and services expected to be readily available online, it is more important than ever to ensure that such relatively trivial and easily resolved accessibility issues don’t end up creating serious barriers to your online content. But with an area as wide and far reaching as web accessibility, where should you start?
Well, when first embarking on the journey to optimize your website for accessibility and digital inclusion, there are three initial steps that all online organizations, and particularly educational institutions, would be well advised to take.
Improving Website Digital Accessibility Step 1: Scan Your Domain/s
Before you even think about what actions to take to improve your website’s digital accessibility, it is essential to get an idea of its current level of compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). By performing an accessibility scan you can instantly identify possible issues that may hinder accessibility, get an overview of how your site is doing, and even get recommendations on how to address them.
Until this crucial first step is taken, it will be more or less impossible to get an accurate idea of the scope of the actions that your organization will need to take to achieve compliance. Performing an accessibility scan will identify the areas of your website that require the most attention, allowing you to identify the key stakeholders that will need to be involved in order to make accessibility improvements happen smoothly and efficiently.
At this early stage, it is also to consider creating an accessibility statement for your website. This can provide your visitors with some basic information regarding your stance on accessibility, and detail the efforts your organization is making towards achieving compliance.
Improving Website Digital Accessibility Step 2: Assemble a Cross-Departmental Team for Accessibility Monitoring and Oversight
In order to properly oversee digital accessibility matters, regulatory compliance, risk management and promotion of good practice etc, it is necessary to set up a dedicated working group of ‘‘champions’’ who can represent the different areas of your institution.
When assembling your dream team, try to think about who best exemplifies the diversity in ability, gender, age, and culture that exists across your organization. The group should ideally work closely together, sharing cross-departmental expertise to facilitate the improvement of accessibility across all of your websites and apps.
Such a team will require executive support to be truly effective, and should at minimum involve representatives responsible for the areas of product management, product development, content creation, and visual design. Also, from the very inception it is a wise move to include team members from both your legal and HR departments, as they can provide legal support and the implementation of accessibility practices into your staff hiring and training.
Improving Website Digital Accessibility Step 3: Start Embedding Accessibility into Your Day-To-Day Strategies and Processes
This third and final first step is really more about engendering a fundamental shift of organizational mindset than anything else - namely a change from a mindset that views the needs of assistive technology users as something of an afterthought, to one that places digital accessibility at the very top of the priority list when it comes to your online strategy.
In other words: make a habit of asking yourself some searching questions, including whether you are doing everything within your power to meet all of your visitors' needs and expectations, and if you are giving sufficient consideration to whether your website’s content might currently leave anyone excluded?
Rome, as we all know, was not built in a day, however, and so it is important to prioritize your accessibility efforts. Try to think about the areas that will have the most significant impact on your online presence, and take action on these first. Also, with the continuing upturn in mobile searches, it is always a smart idea to keep accessibility compliance in mind when reviewing new systems or platforms that will be accessible via a mobile app.
As new technologies continue to emerge and the digital landscape keeps transforming rapidly around us, it is becoming more and more challenging to ensure that no one gets left out or marginalized online. Educational institutions in particular bear a responsibility to provide online experiences that are inclusive, engaging, and enjoyable for everyone involved - students, staff, and any other users- irrespective of ability.
The obstacles lying ahead for online organizations attempting to achieve digital equity are very real, and much work still needs to be done in both the legal and cultural spheres to facilitate this necessary shift in the way websites are developed and maintained. It is, however, also true that the goal of achieving an accessible website is, by its very nature, an ongoing journey.
By following the above three steps and placing them at the heart of your accessibility strategy, you can ensure that your organization’s efforts are built upon a solid foundation as you move toward a more inclusive digital future.
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