Four Keys to System-wide Web Accessibility

The main focus of the GOALS project (a partner of WebAIM) is to help institutions of higher education develop a system-wide approach to web accessibility. At the beginning of the GOALS project, we analyzed several exemplary post-secondary institutions to identify what sets these institutions apart from schools that have been less successful in implementing web accessibility. These findings helped form Recommended Practice Indicators for Institutional Web Accessibility. This document is targeted to higher education, but I think the four principles at its foundation are universal. They are (in less academic terms):

  1. A shared commitment
  2. A concrete policy and plan
  3. Sufficient support for personnel
  4. Ongoing evaluation

Shared commitment

A shared commitment to system-wide accessibility is probably the most crucial element to ensure accessibility. Almost every exemplary group has a person who has assumed the role of "accessibility champion." This person encourages others to be passionate about accessibility, but their enthusiasm is seldom enough to carry an entire organization over time. Some of this enthusiasm must be transferred to the highest level of the organization and to the people creating the content. Without administrative support, an organization lacks the necessary focus and funding. On the other hand, imposing a new accessibility policy without support from the ground level is likely to be met with resistance.

A few years ago, WebAIM provided several days of training for a very large corporation. While we are sometimes introduced by our hosts at the beginning of these trainings, the introduction at this training was very memorable. One of the company’s vice presidents took the time to provide a very enthusiastic introduction by including his own research about the importance of web accessibility worldwide and within their company. There could be little doubt in the minds of trainees that this was something that was important to the company and that it should be important to them individually.

Policy and Plan

While the decision to "be accessible" is important, a commitment to accessibility needs a more concrete roadmap. This roadmap has at least two key elements: a policy and an implementation plan.

The policy is the governance document for your group, and it will need to be reviewed and approved by the organization’s administrators or executive officers. It will probably be heavily scrutinized and will most likely be difficult to update, so it should be as succinct as possible. While policies differ, most should contain at least the following elements:

  • A summary statement – This opening section should include a statement of commitment to accessibility, desired outcomes, etc. This might be the only paragraph that your president or CEO will read.
  • Effective date(s) – When will the policy take effect and will it take effect at once or in phases?
  • Scope – What sections will be repaired first? Are there any legacy areas which will be excluded?
  • A technical standard – The pros and cons of different technical standards is an article in itself, but most standards in the US are based on the relevant-but-aging WCAG 2.0 or the terribly-dated-but-should-be-updated-in-the-next-decade Section 508. Some groups may find it beneficial to separate their policy (which should change very little and may include general language like "international standards") from their technical standard (which may change more frequently).
  • Procurement – What about the things you buy? This section is often overlooked.

Once a standard has been established, an implementation plan should be put into place. An implementation plan is usually highly customized to an organization and should address issues such as timelines, budget, training, communication, etc. This document, or series of documents, should be updated more frequently than the policy.

Support

While web developers and other content creators should be included in the planning process, the reality is that the people who decide on the accessibility standard are not always the people who will be expected to create accessible content. Support must be available for web developers and other content creators. Most large groups will need a staff member or small team whose role includes web accessibility support. This requires ongoing funding, which brings us back to the need for administrative commitment.

Training within an organization is essential if efforts are to be sustainable. Training may be the most cost-intensive part of the whole effort—it includes the cost of the training provider as well as the time of every staff member in attendance. However, once this cost has been incurred, it should reduce the ongoing costs of reporting and retrofitting. Training may vary in length from a few hours for graphic designers or content creators to a day or more for developers and programmers.

Evaluation

We are often approached by groups who request a single assessment that identifies as many accessibility issues as possible. They think once they fix the issues in the report, they will be "accessible." The reality is that the type of evaluation that is most helpful depends on where you are in the process. Here are a few examples:

  • An initial assessment of a small representative sample is a great way to get started. We typically recommend an audit of 20 or so pages with a report that highlights accessibility issues, explains how these issues impact individuals with disabilities, and guidance for addressing these issues. This initial accessibility audit can be used to help educate administrators or executives about the importance of accessibility. It can also help identify which sections of the site should be addressed first and can even be used to customize the training given to web developers.
  • Once a policy, plan, and training are in place, a more detailed report will help identify additional accessibility issues. This report is often more detailed and technical and should be used to further refine training and support.
  • Wide-scale site monitoring can be helpful once a group is well on their way to creating accessible content. Automated reporting tools are often used during this phase.
  • Evaluation should not be limited to web content—the quality of the web accessibility policy and implementation should also be evaluated on a regular basis.

Take a step back

When we encounter groups that are having difficulties implementing web accessibility system-wide, I have found that it is almost always due to a shortcoming in one of the above four areas. While it’s tempting to focus your accessibility efforts on technical standards and reports, it is usually best to take a step back and evaluate the true root of the problem. If your policy is not being followed, see if it is paired with an implementation plan. If you only have budget for a comprehensive evaluation, consider a less detailed report paired with training. Most importantly, make sure that your organization shares a vision for accessibility and that your staff knows that they will receive the training and support that they need. If these four elements are addressed, the accessibility of your content will certainly improve.

Comments

  1. Adriana Perez

    Do you know where technical standards can be found and if they are applicable to latin american countries? If US awareness has a way to go you can imagine what needs to be done in third world countries.

  2. Mike Miller

    Very nice and helpfull article.

    Unfortunately I cannot find many resources related to Web Accessibiliy. And this article is nice because, except the good information, is also easy to read.

    Thanks a lot

  3. Michelangelo

    Based on my experience in large organizations I’d say this article absolutely nails it. Grassroots will only get you so far…