Accessibility Plus Empathy Equals Thoughtful UX
Accessibility Plus Empathy Equals Thoughtful UX


Accessibility Plus Empathy Equals Thoughtful UX

Sep 27, 2021By Kaycee Woodford

Many of us know the premise behind web accessibility: building a website that can serve site visitors of all abilities, backgrounds, and environments. But when it comes to bringing that idea to fruition, the task of enhancing a site’s accessibility — and maintaining that accessibility over time — can feel overwhelming and more like a chore than anything else. It’s this mindset that inhibits progress and leaves accessibility initiatives to fall by the wayside. As a result, your site’s user experience remains subpar and your chances of being subject to a lawsuit increase by the day.

So what can be done to change the mindset? How can we look at such an undertaking through a lens that inspires positive change? After all, a project has more chance of success when started from a place of zeal and determination than one of doubt and idleness. As you’ve probably guessed, the answer is employing empathy. Considering the overall goal of higher education and adjusting your perception of exactly whom accessibility is for can help you change your thinking.

Higher Education Strives to Be Inclusive. So Should Your Site.

Modern higher ed has moved toward providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for students of all walks of life. Diversity and equity initiatives are prioritized on campuses across the country, helping to ensure that prospective and current students feel accepted and, most important, accommodated.

Naturally, the thread of diversity, inclusivity, and support should be woven through every aspect of an institution, including its website. Paired with visuals and strong messaging about your school’s commitment, a highly accessible website affirms your stance and encourages all visitors to explore and learn more. It’s an explicit illustration of how your institution strives to accommodate all students and learning styles.

Accessibility Is for the Many, Not the Few.

When thinking about audiences who benefit from accessible websites, it’s common to picture someone who is blind, deaf, or has advanced dexterity limitations. While it’s essential to accommodate such disabilities, it’s also important to remember that there are an endless number of scenarios in which people may be physically, mentally, emotionally, or environmentally unable to explore a website with ease. To further encourage empathy and understanding, ask yourself the following questions:

Background or Situational Limitations:

  • Do you or someone you know primarily speak a language other than English?
  • Have you ever been in bright sunlight and were unable to see your phone’s screen?
  • Have you ever tried watching a video in a loud room?
  • Has your computer mouse ever stopped working?

Health Limitations:

  • Do you or someone you know have epilepsy?
  • Have you or someone you know experienced a temporary or permanent mental disablement?
  • Have you or someone you know struggled with anxiety or depression?
  • Have you or someone you know experienced tremors or shaking?

Chances are, you can answer “yes” to some or even most of these questions. In that case, you or someone you know would have benefited from compliant web accessibility at one point or another. Being able to resonate with site users of all abilities, whether these conditions are temporary or permanent, is key to understanding how much priority you should place on accessibility initiatives.

So What’s Next?

With empathy and practicality on your side, you’ll have to solidify next steps that make the most sense for your institution. To start, you should encourage buy-in and education among leadership and anyone who is managing the web presence. You should also inventory the most urgent and persistent issues on your site in an effort to prioritize them.

  • We encourage your core web team to gain a basic, if not advanced, understanding of accessibility best practices. This Introduction to Web Accessibility course from the W3C provides the essential guidelines for compliance while also going into detail on some of the scenarios outlined earlier.
  • Using a web-based tool such as the WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool, you should also evaluate your current site, particularly pages with the most traffic, for any top-priority or persistent issues. Some key areas you may pay special attention to: 
    • Color contrast of text and background, including text on top of images. Per WCAG Success Criterion 1.4.3, a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text is required.
    • Heading tags on pages. H‑tags are essential for helping people who use screen readers understand how a page is organized. By not having h‑tags, or skipping heading levels (such as H1, then H4), you’re preventing those with low or no vision from fully comprehending the page’s content. Refer to WCAG Success Criterion 2.4.6 for more details on heading tags.
    • Image alt text. For those who have images disabled on their browser, alt text is especially important, particularly for images that serve a purpose or provide crucial context to a page. There’s a bit of nuance with image alt text, however, so we encourage you to read through the Images Tutorial from the W3C.
    • Video captioning. Per the W3C, “captions (also called “intralingual subtitles”) provide content to people who are deaf and others who cannot hear the audio. They are also used by people who process written information better than audio.” Refer to WCAG Success Criterion 1.2.2 for more details on video captions.
    • Motion, sound, and user controls. A current trend in web design is using looping background video to capture the user’s attention and keep them engaged. However, it’s essential that you provide the option to control that movement by employing a clear pause/play control, per WCAG Success Criterion 2.2.2.

Finally, with all of your priorities in order, you can start to make meaningful strides toward an accessible website. With incremental changes to your most trafficked pages, you’re on your way to improving the user experience for not just some, but all.

Need Help Making Your Site Accessible?

mStoner’s accessibility checkup will provide you with actionable information to help you comply with legal accessibility requirements, improve website performance for the seven major user characteristics, address major components of your .edu, and increase outreach.

  • Kaycee Woodford Director of UX As Director of UX, Kaycee Woodford translates research, analytics, client goals, and customer needs into solutions that deliver results.