Jim Byrne Accessible Website Design
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An example: UK University Accessible Web Design Plan

Author: Jim Byrne
First draft: February 2004

I am publishing this example plan in the hope that it may provide a useful 'jumping off' point for universities in the UK as they consider developing their own web accessibility policies and plans.

This document did not get beyond the 'draft' stage, so I am aware that there is much that can be improved upon - and probably much that can be left out.

The Aim of this plan is to explore the best way to ensure university websites are accessible to the widest possible audience. Access to the information and services provide via the is an important aspect of ensuring that disabled students are not treated 'less favourably' than non-disabled students.

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 (SENDA) makes it unlawful to discriminate against a disabled person in pre and post-16 education in Scotland, England and Wales.

Specifically it is unlawful to discriminate against a disabled person in relation to the services provided to students, and admission to the university. To ensure compliance both the university's internal (e.g., intranet, departmental sites, administration sites, e-learning sites, library sites) and public sites (e.g. University home page, web based marketing material) must be accessible to ensure SENDA compliance. Further information about Web Accessibility and the law can be found at http://www.web-accessibility.org.uk.

What do we mean by an accessible website?

For the purpose of the technical tests, this document assumes that an accessible website contains valid (X)HTML (tested against the chosen DOCTYPE), and passes Priority 2 of the World Wide Web Consortiums (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Guidelines.

  • Insisting upon valid HTML or XHTML provides the best chance that sites will work on all hardware platforms, and all web browsers.
  • Insisting upon at least WAI Priority 2 helps to ensure that the content of websites will be flexible enough to adapt to unpredictable student needs.

Compliance with website accessibility guidelines does not necessarily imply compliance with SENDA. Websites may pass accessibility tests, but still place some students at a 'substantial disadvantage' when compared to their non-disabled peers, Where students are placed at a substantial disadvantage, the university has an obligation to make 'reasonable adjustments'. In practice this may mean providing alternative ways of obtaining the web based information or service.

Accessibility and usability

Websites must also be easy to navigate, easy to understand and have content that is appropriate to the intended audience. Ensuring websites are accessible and usable for disabled students also has potential benefits for all web users.

The Plan in Summary

With adequate time and resources, some of the work can be carried out concurrently. This will include:

  • Setting up a Policy and Planning Group,
  • Developing a Policy document to provide a context for future planning.
  • Commenting upon and approve the Web Accessibility Plan.
  • Developing an Information Campaign.
  • Agree upon definition of Accessible Web Design.
  • Agreeing upon web content accessibility standards, and level of compliance.
  • Agreeing upon standards relating to content authoring tools (using guidelines as part of criteria for choosing a Content Management System and website authoring tools.)
  • Decide who will be responsible for carrying out particular tasks within the plan.
  • Evaluating accessibility auditing tools and choosing appropriate auditing tools.
  • Carrying out a baseline study to find out what websites exist, how accessible they are and who is hosting and managing them. Identifying existing good practice in this area within the University.
  • Reporting findings of baseline study.
  • Developing and prioritising an implementation plan in response to audit findings
  • Creating a web accessibility support website or developing the existing Web Team Website to fulfil this role, drawing on other relevant resources within the University.
  • Drawing up accessibility guidelines and support materials for existing and new websites,
  • Identifying training requirements for staff
  • Developing training programmes including training for staff responsible for creating and maintaining websites
  • Ratifying procedures for creating new websites: point of contact etc
  • Delivering training courses,
  • Producing a strategy for checking the accessibility of University websites.
  • Developing ongoing support, audting and development plan.

1.Develop a web accessibility policy.

Set up a Web Accessibility Policy and Planning Group

To ensure institutional support, to the Web Accessibility Plan, a group should be set up representing the main interests within the university. The group will oversee the development of the Web Accessibility Policy and Plan.

Ideally the policy will include technical standards to be met, whether complete compliance is required, a timeline for compliance, systems for monitoring, and consequences for non-compliance (issues highlighted in research article related to policy development: http://www.webaim.org/coordination/articles/policies-pilot ).

The following stakeholders (among others) should be included: management, student representatives, disabled students, administrators, web designers, lecturers, MPR, effective learning service and staff supporting disabled students.

2. Conduct a baseline study

Information should be gathered in two main areas, accessibility of existing websites, and information about staff involved in web design and web content management within the university.

Testing the accessibility of web pages is as much an art as it is a science this has been emphasised in the JISC Report 'Access All Areas (2002). The same report points to the problems educational establishments encounter in aiming to make their websites SENDA compliant and it is argued that websites not all problems will be found by using automated tools; suggesting that there is an ability to interpret authoring and validation tools. http://www.techdis.ac.uk/accessallareas/AAA.pdf )

Therefore the following 3 steps are suggested when testing web pages.

  1. Testing for code validity and accessibility using automated tools.
  2. Manual testing by an individual experienced in web accessibility techniques and issues.
  3. Interpreting and reporting of test results by experienced personnel.

Technical testing of websites:

  • Check standards compliance: are websites using standard markup.
  • Check W3C WAI Priority 2 compliance.

Gather information about the number of sites involved, and the amount of traffic sites attracts. Website statistics will help when it comes to deciding which sites should be fixed first, and which can be left until later, although this should not be the sole determinant.

Recommended strategy:

  1. 1. Test the home page of each department, research unit and administration website.
    • Test for valid (X)HTML using W3C validation tool.
    • Test for Priorty 2 accessibility compliance using Bobby or similar tool.
  2. 2. Manually check the home page of each site for usability and accessibility problems.
  3. 3. Compile results of test in a report.

Gather information about web developers

The baseline study should also gather evidence in relation to the needs of Web developers and Web content publishers:

  • Who currently builds and maintains websites in the university?
  • What skills do web developers and web content providers have?
  • What web design applications are being used?
  • Do the web design applications used help or hinder accessible web design.
  • What are the training needs of staff designing or adding content to websites?

Client side Issues

Changing Web Browser Preferences

Users need to be able to change text colour, text size, contrast and so on to suite their own needs; user control of web page presentation element is a fundamental principal of web accessibility.

The importance of this point is emphasised by the high number of students with Dyslexia within universities (approximately 1 in 6 students using the Effective Learning Service in Glasgow Caledonian University have dyslexia). The ability to control page presentation is extremely important. For example, text may be unreadable if the contrast between background colour and text colour is too high, or too low.

The accessibility of publishing tools and content management systems.

The content management system to be used to manage and update web pages should assist rather than hinder users attempts to create accessible websites. A useful first step would be to agree upon a set of standards to be met by potential authoring tools.The W3C Authoring Tools Guidelines are a good starting point for discussion: http://www.w3.org/TR/ATAG10/

A more thorough baseline study could include:

  • Usability and accessibility testing involving real students.
  • Recorded complaints and support communications from students, potential students, staff

Gathering soft evidence by talking to stakeholders throughout the university.

  • Information from disabled student support, student learning support, lecturers and disabled student (requires communication; visits to staff and students). Gather anecdotal evidence.
  • Are disabled students, potential students, and staff having problems accessing web based information?
  • Do staff show and awareness of web access issues?
  • Do relevant staff show and awareness of existing support structures for creating accessible web sites?
  • Assess whether current Web design related IT training programmes within the university to foster an awareness of web access issues.

An online questionnaire could be used collect some of this information, complemented by visits to appropriate individuals within the university.

Baseline study results

After the audit we should be able to quantify the current situation, for example,

  • What percentage of websites validate to published standards,
  • What percentage pass WAI Priority 2 guidelines?
  • How many people within the university build or add content to websites, what are their training needs.
  • What are user needs and most common issues related accessible web design.
  • What sites are the most heavily used.
  • Are current websites g developed in response to SENDA and the needs of disabled students.

4. Decide upon expected outcomes, prioritise and plan response to audit findings

Develop a plan for fixing existing accessibility problems based on priorities decided upon by the planning group. A plan will include:

  • Setting priorities for sites to be fixed.
  • Agree upon our definition of an accessible web site.
  • Defining standards.
  • Developing templates.
  • Identifying and prioritising existing problems.
  • Working with developers to fix accessibility problems in identified sites.
  • Providing training to web developers.

Set targets and dates for reaching particular milestones.

  • Percentage of websites meeting standards compliance and W3C WAI Priority 2 guidelines.
  • Target date for My.Caledonain and Blackboard meeting standards and accessible guidelines?
  • Percentage of web designers completed a training course?

It may be useful to create a checklist and techniques document to assist in the task of fixing problems with existing websites, and to help ensure that all new sites are accessible. The checklist should be based on the W3C WAI Web Accessiblity Guidelines.

5. Ensure all new sites are accessible.

To ensure new sites created within the university are accessible, web designers and web content publishers require training, appropriate web design applications, and support services.

Content Management Tools and Web Design Applications

Thought should be given to the appropriateness of the tools that developers are using to build websites:

  • Do they assist developers in creating accessible sites (test against W3C authoring tool guidelines)?
  • Is the web design application supported by university IT?
  • Is training provided for that particular application?


  • Training to be delivered to the Web team (and wider web team) and trainers first. Learn from feedback to improve subsequent courses.
  • Work with training team to develop training courses that can be delivered by training unit across the university.
  • Develop online course(s)?

Suggested initial training: A one-day training course for web team and IT trainers. After the initial 'orientation' training course further courses should be developed to teach specific skills and topics,

Decide what to do when websites are not accessible

There needs to be clear guidelines stating who is be responsible for deciding whether a website is accessible or not, and what procedures should be put in place when websites fail accessibility tests.

Develop Information campaign and a support website

Develop a website, brochures, posters and a seminars to publicise the issues and related training and services.

Develop Accessible Web Developers website

Set up a website and community support structures for web designers and web content providers:

  • Publish Web Policy document and Web Accessibility Plan
  • Provide an overview of web accessibility issues and context
  • Provide legislative context and links to relevant websites
  • Practice guidelines and 'crib sheets'.
  • Develop documentation to support the implementation of each Priority 1 and 2 guidelines.
  • Engender a sense of community among web designers. Develop a database of current developers, set up a web developers group, schedule meetings and, send out weekly/monthly tips and techniques
  • Build a mailing list of those who have completed the training (to helps spread of community resources, e.g., weekly tip, meeting dates).
  • Practical guides and resources. Provide clear procedures and contacts in relation to creating new sites and updating existing sites.
  • Provide examples of good practice, e.g., each site should have an accessibility page, or perhaps link to a single accessibility page that gives information about changing preferences, downloading plugins and where to get help if a different format is required,
  • Provide templates and specification documents
  • Publish a timetable of training course(s) at different levels.
  • Develop online training?

On-going auditing and training

Website change constantly, as do staff (who need to be trained), accessibility guidelines and web publishing tools; resources will be required to set in place a program of ongoing audit of websites. The job of creating accessible and usable websites, updating them, and auditing for accessibility will not come to an end it is an on-gong process that needs to planned for and resourced.

6. Resources and Time required

A long-term view is required

Implementing the above plan will require a considerable amount of time and resources: auditing, compiling feedback, interpreting feedback, writing reports, developing training materials, carrying out training, writing guides and resources, setting up a support website. The experience of other institutions and their published policy and planning guides indicate that there is no 'quick fix'. To ensure that websites comply with (and continue to comply with) legislation and accessibility guidelines; a programme of training and support, auditing of websites and ongoing review of tools and procedures will be required.

Draft Timeline

It has been suggested by WebAIM (and largely reflected in the experience of universities who have published their plans on the web) that it can take two years to achieve the 'Institutional Co-ordination and Reform' of educational organizations aiming to conform to web accessibility legislation. (WebAIM are a US organisation administered through a grant provided by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education).


Example Policies and plans:

Web Accessibility Policies (and Pseudo Policies) in Postsecondary Institutions http://www.webaim.org/coordination/

Cardiff University.

Glasgow University.

University of Exeter.

University of Wales Bangor.

Warwick University.

University of Melbourne.

Glasgow University.

Strathclyde University.

Fresno State University.

Web Co-ordinators University of Aberdeen and hosted sites.

Issues related to policy development

Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, 2001. CHAPTER 2 FURTHER AND HIGHER EDUCATION Discrimination against students and perspective students Duties of responsible bodies.

The JISC Report, 'Access all Areas: disability, technology and learning (Phipps, Sutherland and Seale, 2002) highlights many of the problems educational establishments encounter in aiming to make their websites accessible and maintain accessibility. There is a strong emphasis on the need for expertise and human intervention including knowledge of html and accessibility issues. Witt and McDermott in their article: 'Achieving SENDA -compliance for Website in further and higher education: an art or a science', conclude that this is an art requiring a considerable degree of understanding of web accessibility issues. In particular, they highlight the need for an ability to interpret authoring and validation tools.

David Sloan of Dundee University, also writing in the JISC Report, raises similar points in his article, 'Creating Accessible e-learning Content', and suggests that another significant problem relating to the design of accessible websites is that many pages are written in non-valid html.

Betty Wilder, who works with the JISC Legal Information Service identifies, in her article in the JISC Report, that Commentators from WC3 have suggested that Priority 1 AND Priority 2 of their guidelines should be the norm. She suggests that with regard to 'reasonable adjustment' that "it may be expedient for institutions to be anticipating the likelihood that the courts may use this as a standard" p7. 'Access all Areas: disability, technology and learning (Phipps, Sutherland and Seale, 2002 - http://www.techdis.ac.uk/accessallareas/AAA.pdf )

University Web Accessibility Policies: A Bridge Not Quite Far Enough Paul Ryan Bohman (December 20, 2003)

" The Web sites of these universities often fail to meet minimum Web accessibility standards. Part of the problem lies with the policies themselves. Many of them fail to delineate a specific technical standard, fail to indicate whether compliance with the policy is required, fail to indicate a timeline or deadline for compliance, fail to define a system for evaluating or monitoring compliance, and fail to enumerate any consequences for failure to comply."

Web testing tools

HTML Validation.

CSS Validation.



Ask Alice.


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