What does Accessibility Look Like?

Professor stands at board

Accessibility can look like a wide variety of things depending on the individual, the context, and the purpose of the interaction. There is some very helpful guidance related to electronic information in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The guidelines aim to make websites, apps, electronic documents, and other digital assets accessible to people with a broad range of disabilities, including sensory, intellectual, learning and physical disabilities.   

The guidelines include four main principles of digital asset design. Websites, apps, electronic documents, and other digital assets must be: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust (WCAG - WCAG 101: Understanding the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines).  These are referred to as the WCAG “POUR” principles.  

Accessibility Depends… 

Accessibility depends on for whom you are designing  

We must start with the assumption that our community is diverse. We know that people with disabilities play an important role in our community as students, instructors, and staff members. They take classes, teach classes, eat in our dining halls, and live in our residence halls. In other words, they participate in all aspects of the UNH community experience.  

It is important to consider that people have a wide range of different types of abilities. These include but are not limited to auditory, cognitive, neurodevelopmental, neurological, physical, speech, and visual abilities.  

Accessibility depends on the context 

What accessibility might look like depends on what you are designing and how individuals will interact with the design, but also the context of that interaction. For example, ensuring accessibility in a Word document requires different considerations than creating an interactive website with multimedia, forms, and interactive elements. Will the document be available digitally or just as a printed version? Is the document meant to be quickly skimmed or read in depth? Thinking about the overall context is critical in understanding accessibility and, ultimately, usability.  

Accessibility depends on the purpose/goal 

What accessibility looks like depends a great deal on the purpose/goal of the item you are creating. In other words, what is the experience that the individual is intended to have? What are they supposed to be able to do?  

For example, sometimes alternative text is vital to have on an image or graphic, while other times it is not necessary. If the image is used to convey meaning or purpose to the reader, then alternative text is vital to include. However, what if the image is just being used for decoration? What if the intent is not to add information, but just to add visual interest? In those cases, alternative text might not be needed, and the image could be marked as “decorative”. Knowing when alternative text is needed depends on the purpose/goal of the image.  

What Does Accessibility Look Like at the Department Level? 

Professor talks to student in lab

There is a lot of variation within what accessibility might look like in different departments.  However, there are some common practices that can be identified in works by departments  that have made efforts to be accessible. Some of the common practices include:  

  • Regularly discussing disability, accessibility, and Universal Design within the department  
  • Ensuring accessibility is built into development and design processes 
  • Building accessibility into departmental policies proactively  
  • Hosting and attending regular trainings and developments on accessibility within their specific field  
  • Incorporating accessibility into the on-boarding and hiring processes  
  • Ensuring accessibility is a key criteria in the procurement process 
  • Regularly auditing materials and contexts for accessibility  
  • Establishing an accessibility action committee that regularly engages key stakeholders 
  • Ensuring active representation of people with disabilities in key decision making 
  • Designating someone within the department as an Accessibility Liaison  

There are many other examples from departments across campus. What all these practices have in common is the centering of accessibility and disability not only for the benefit of community members with disabilities, but also for the benefit of all individuals.