As the recent pandemic outbreak illustrates, the digital world is taking on an ever-increasing role in our lives. However, though Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) considers websites to be “places of public accommodation,” ensuring that they are accessible to individuals of varying abilities is a challenge. As Celebrate Diversity Month comes to a close, the School of Public Affairs offers a glimpse of what efforts go into building a diverse and inclusive digital community.
SPA Website Manager Adam Whitehurst has long taken a proactive approach to tackling accessibility issues. He meets on a monthly basis with the AU Office of Information Technology to learn best practices, and uses university tools, based on international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), to routinely audit accessibility and make ongoing improvements. Within a year of his leadership and the efforts of his team, the accessibility metric of the SPA website rose in compliance by approximately 60%.
"This accessibility project has been a team effort," said Whitehurst. "Without the support from our school communications team, and countless others across SPA and American University, we wouldn't have been able to make such enormous progress." He also gives special thanks to SPA's student website assistant, Martha Kamioner, who spends hours per week identifying and managing accessibility issues across the more than 1400 unique pages on the site.
These issues can be technically complex, and outside the understanding of the average marketing team. For example, screen readers, specialized assistive software programs, allow visually impaired users to “read” text on the computer screen using a speech synthesizer or braille display. In such a case, images can pose a problem. To address this, Whitehurst’s team creates, checks for, and properly formats alternative, readable text for image content, and reduces the use of text on the images themselves. They practice descriptive hyperlinking instead of the ubiquitous “click here,” which can be confusingly nonspecific when read by a screen reader. Such assistive technologies are further optimized by careful organization of page headers to help in navigation.
With the advent of multimedia content, users with impaired hearing may miss out on messages communicated through video or audio. Careful and thorough captioning is vital. The SPA Communications Team works to ensure that all promoted videos, including livestreamed and recorded events such as panels, talks, and seminars, are captioned before posting on the website, and that transcripts are provided.
Website consumers with differing learning abilities can face a unique set of challenges. In line with AU best practices, Whitehurst and his team consider the needs of users with attention disorders, and how best to communicate content to them without visual or audial overstimulation. The SPA web team focuses on optimizing physical line lengths on the page, and improving page readability by minimizing polysyllabic words and overlong sentences. Pages are designed with an eye to reducing the size of navigational elements to keep attention on content.
Whitehurst considers these site adjustments to be ongoing improvements, in line with AU’s Plan for Inclusive Excellence and SPA’s overall philosophy of inclusivity and excellence in public affairs . He educates SPA faculty and staff on accessibility basics, and offers a unique perspective to all school offices and initiatives.
“When it comes to inclusivity, people don’t often think about applying that to our digital spaces,” said Whitehurst. “Just as SPA’s Kerwin Hall has wheelchair-accessible ramps to enter the building, we also need to make sure the SPA website is accessible to users with disabilities.”