What is Accessibility?

Accessibility is the degree to which a product, device, program, service, resource, or environment is available to a given user. Information and communication technology is considered accessible if it can be used as effectively by people with disabilities as it can by those without disabilities. Comparable access to information must be provided, taking the needs of all users and learners into account. True accessibility provides for not just the sightless and the hearing impaired but also the color blind, those prone to seizures, and people with physical limitations that require keyboard navigation rather than the use of a mouse. It is essential that the web and content are accessible in order to provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with disabilities.

A common misconception is that accessibility is covered by the adherence to accommodation requirements. For example, instructors may believe that it isn’t their responsibility to provide transcripts or captions to students viewing a video in an online course. Instead, they might direct students to the Office of Accessibility Resources and Services to provide the content in a modality that they can use more effectively. However, providing alternative text for videos is an issue of accessibility, not accommodation. Accommodations and accessibility requirements are two different things and need to be considered separately.

What is the Difference Between an Accommodation and Accessibility?

An accommodation is:

  • provided based on the specific needs of a student with a documented disability
  • determined by an accommodation officer on a case-by-case basis
  • provided for students whose needs require greater intervention, such as live American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters or lecture transcripts for live courses
  • for circumstances that are difficult to anticipate and prepare for

Accessibility is:

  • the responsibility of all who create or publish digital content
  • provided for all students, with no expectation of an explanation of need
  • expected for disabilities that are easily anticipated

Web Accessibility

Web Accessibility means that web sites are designed to allow people with disabilities to perceive, navigate, understand, and interact with the information presented on the site. Many people with disabilities use assistive technologies and features to access the web. A few examples include:

  • Students and employees with physical disabilities may not be able to use their hands to type on a standard keyboard or use a standard mouse. They may use voice recognition technology or an adapted keyboard.
  • Students and employees with a visual impairment may need to use a screen reader to provide auditory output of what is presented on the screen.
  • Students and employees who are deaf or hard of hearing may need to use captioning to fully understand multimedia content.

Accessibility Standards

W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) summarizes web accessibility nicely in their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG). WCAG 2.0 is organized into the following four key concepts:

  1. Perceivable

1.1  Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.
1.2  Provide alternatives for time-based media.
1.3  Create content that can be presented in different ways (for example simpler layout) without losing information or structure.
1.4  Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background.

  1. Operable

2.1  Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
2.2  Provide users enough time to read and use content.
2.3  Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures.
2.4  Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.

  1. Understandable

3.1  Make text content readable and understandable.
3.2  Make Web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
3.3  Help users avoid and correct mistakes.

  1. Robust

4.1  Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.

Although written specifically for web content, these principles apply to other technologies as well. There are many possible approaches to attaining accessibility as defined by these four concepts.

Federal standards: Section 508

On January 18, 2017, the Access Board published a final rule that jointly updates the requirements for information and communication technology (ICT) covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Communication Act. The refresh harmonizes these requirements with the guidelines and standards in the U.S. And abroad, including standards issued by the European Commission and with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0), a globally recognized voluntary consensus standard for web content and ICT.

This final rule is effective March 20, 2017. [Note: The Board changed the effective date to March 21, 2017, as indicated in a notice published on March 2, 2017.] However, compliance with the new section 508-based standards is required beginning January 18, 2018.

Creating Accessible Course Content

Although the content may be in an electronic format, there is a very good chance that it is not accessible for students using assistive technology in order to access the information.  Our page on Accessible Alternative Course Materials has resources that will help you learn how to make various types of documents accessible as you develop the documents. In many cases, creating an accessible document is as easy as creating an inaccessible document. Creating an accessible document ultimately means time and energy is saved as the documents do not have to be re-worked to make them accessible.

General Resources

Introduction to Web Accessibility – WebAIM

Getting Started with Web Accessibility- World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

Accessibility- Why, What, and How – World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)


National Centre for Accessible media (NCAM)

Universal Design for Learning Guidelines