May 18 is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, an annual event that underscores the need to open websites, apps, and other digital tools to everyone, including people with disabilities.
You might think digital accessibility is the province of programmers and other techies. In fact, anyone who creates online content, digital media, or electronic documents should understand accessibility fundamentals.
WebAIM (or Web Accessibility in Mind) is a global leader in digital accessibility. Much of its work focuses on websites, but the principles it’s defined apply to all kinds of digital projects.
WebAIM emphasizes four essential qualities for websites and digital media: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.
Perceivable by the senses
Not everyone can see an image, read text characters, or hear an audio track. Accessible content gives users options—it’s transformable, meaning it can change forms and be perceived using different senses.
For example, image files can include behind-the-scenes text descriptions that people with visual disabilities can access with assistive devices like screen readers, which convert text to voice. Image “alt text” can be integrated into websites, PDF files, PowerPoint presentations, etc.
Likewise, audio can be transformed into text—transcripts of podcasts, captions for videos, or live Zoom captioning—for deaf or hard-of-hearing users. All text elements can be delivered in Braille using special devices for people who are deaf and blind.
Operable using different devices or methods
Not everyone uses a computer mouse or standard keyboard to access digital information. Accessible content is created to work on adaptive or alternative devices or with keyboards only (e.g., letting users navigate menus by tapping the tab key).
Accessible content also helps people find information in different ways—menus, search, sitemaps, etc.—and uses structural cues to facilitate scanning. For example, web pages, PDF files, Microsoft Word documents, and other files should outline information using page and section headings.
Finally, accessible websites and media give all users sufficient time to complete tasks, easy-to-use controls over time-based content like video or audio, and ability to undo errors.
Understandable with ease
Not everyone, of course, shares the same language skills. And everyone processes language in different ways depending on context. For example, most of us are apt to skim online text as we look for information we want.
Web content, especially, should be as clear and simple as possible. Likewise, navigation and interaction for websites, documents, media files, etc., should be consistent and predictable.
Robust and future-proof
Not everyone uses the same hardware, software, or methods—today or tomorrow. Accessible content works with the widest practical variety of tools, including some emerging technologies. It follows specifications for today’s tech, making it more likely to work with whatever comes next.
Better for everybody
Digital accessibility isn’t just the right thing to do—in many cases, it’s the law. Making websites and media fully accessible serves the university’s mission, reflects its values, and reduces risks.
Accessibility also means usability. Plain language, simple controls, alternative formats, and related features make digital tools easier for everybody to use.
So, whether you’re building complex websites or simply creating PDF files, good accessibility practices are key. They’ll help you connect with your audiences and get your point across.