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Universal Design, Usability, and Accessibility

A comic from XKCD pointing out that what most people want to find on the main page of a college or university web site cannot be found there.Chronicle reporter Marc Parry has just published a fairly lengthy article covering the ways in which students who are blind or have low vision are often excluded from various digital environments created by their schools. As Marc writes, “Colleges that wouldn’t dare put up a new building without wheelchair access now routinely roll out digital services that, for blind people, are the Internet equivalent of impassable stairs.” Some students and organizations that advocate for people who are blind or have low vision have initiated lawsuits against schools with inaccessible technology, arguing that such technology is discriminatory. As we might expect, not everyone thinks that these lawsuits are a good idea, and there are those who argue that such legal actions will be perceived as frivolous and reduce the level of support students with disabilities would otherwise get from allies or potential allies.

Rather than weigh in on the debate regarding the wisdom of these lawsuits, I’d like to return to the concept of universal design that I wrote about back in August as one of my posts on accessibility. This time, however, I’m going to be more blunt: Many (most?) college and university web sites are poorly designed for any user, much less for users with disabilities. As @csgirl writes in a comment to this earlier Chronicle news story: higher ed is home to “[c]luttered, busy sites filled with story carousels and mouseover effects [that] make it very hard for people, whether sighted or not, to find the information they need. I think university websites are some of the worst offenders out there when it comes to good design.” And a very succinct critique was made by this XKCD comic that made the rounds a few months back.

So let’s reframe the issue: Colleges should rethink their approach to designing online environments and digital tools in order to better meet the needs of all of their users, not just those with disabilities. You are not meeting the needs of a statistically insignificant minority when you ensure that your sites are usable and accessible; rather, embracing universal design principles will result in web sites that are better for everyone.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Here are a few links that provide more detailed information on the subject:

Universal Design for the Digital Environment: Transforming the Institution,” by Cyndi Rowland, Heather Mariger, Peter M. Siegel, and Jonathan Whiting (The Educause Review November/December 2010)

Universal design has made a difference to all of us: services and tools that enhance accessibility invariably improve all of our lives. Curb cuts, automatic doors, speakerphones, text-to-speech capabilities, ergonomic keyboards and potato peelers, video captioning, zooming and other gestures on smart-phones and tablets, and motion-sensor lighting—although many of these improvements were originally driven by the needs of those with disabilities to participate or be included, the broader community has benefited enormously from the increased flexibility and convenience that universal design has brought. For those with disabilities, however, universal design is far more than a matter of flexibility or convenience; they face significant barriers in accessing the innovative and valuable services and tools essential for daily life. This is largely due to the fact that universal design is still viewed as a costly, after-the-fact consideration rather than a cost-efficient, basic component of procurement, design, and integration.

The Inclusion Principle,” by Margit Link-Rodrigue (A List Apart July 21, 2009)

Let’s explore the inclusion principle, which allows us to forget about the dichotomy between “them” and “us” so deeply ingrained in our social interactions. A focus on inclusion frees the accessible/universal design discussion from the conflicting interests described above and lets us embrace a broader, more organic philosophy. Above all, focusing on inclusion helps us understand that we do not only consider accessibility for others, but for our own good.

The Accessibility Checklist I Vowed I’d Never Write,” by Aaron Cannon (Northtemple June 6, 2008)

When I wrote the below checklist, I attempted to answer the question, “What concise pieces of advice can I give to designers that will have the greatest impact on accessibility in the majority of cases?” This list is not the perfect solution, nor is it the only solution, but I believe it is a good first step, and it gives our developers and designers a place to start from.

Accessibility and Usability,” by Karin Dalziel (Nirak.net October 27, 2009)

Accessibility and usability are hot keywords right now, and usability testing is a hot new money making venture. What one doesn’t often hear is that much of what makes a website usable and accessible is pretty simple, and easy enough to implement if you know how.

How about you?

What’s your approach to universal design, usability, and accessibility? Let’s hear from you in the comments!

[Comic from XKCD.]

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