Standards & Best Practices

What is Accessibility?

Web accessibility means creating digital resources on the web that everyone can use. This involves creating a web that is accessible to people with disabilities that may affect how they use the Web, including but not limited to visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive and neurological disabilities.

An accessible web benefits everyone. People with or without disabilities. Web users and web developers. People with diverse needs and preferences. An accessible web gives people the flexibility to access digital materials in whatever way they need or want to.

Developing a Web Accessibility Business Case for Your Organization. Shawn Lawton Henry and Andrew Arch, eds. Copyright © 2012 W3C® (MITERCIMKeio). Status: Updated 7 September 2012.

What is Universal Design?

Universal Design is working to blend accessibility standards and usability principles together in order to create technology that is usable for everyone. Creating pathways for individuals to learn, communicate, and share via information technology, regardless of their individual learning and processing styles, or physical characteristics.

Universal design means considering people’s diverse needs in the initial design of a product. The main goals of universal design are to eliminate barriers and improve access for all.

Web products that follow the principle of universal design are:

  • Flexible and adaptable to different users’ needs or preferences
  • Accessible through a variety of different technologies, including mobile devices or assistive technologies
  • More cost effective than designing a product that needs to be retrofitted for accessibility later on. Re-designs are expensive!

See the article, “Inclusivity, Gestalt Principles, and Plain Language in Document Design,” for more on how Gestalt principles improve accessibility.

Principles of an Accessible Institution

  1. Coordination and Harmonization: Harmonize all of the activities across your institution necessary to guarantee Internet justice. Empower your community to produce guidance and regulations, to draft and monitor accessibility requirements, to conduct accessibility research, to support innovation in accessibility, and to enforce accessibility requirements across and within organizations.
  2. Monitoring and Enforcement: Set up an enforcement body on campus that can hold people and departments accountable for inaccessible materials. Do not place the burden on people with disabilities to bring complaints against the institution and enforce their own rights.
  3. Guidance and Leadership: Bring accessibility issues to the attention of the leaders at your library. Create mechanisms for champions of accessibility to lead from all levels. Create a cross-departmental governing body to lead, create, and enforce accessibility initiatives across your institution.
  4. Access Considerations: Develop access requirements with direct input from people with disabilities and disability rights organizations that represent the spectrum of different disabilities. Standards and policies should focus on the information and communication needs of users with disabilities rather than on specific technological or performance issues.
  5. Technical Dimensions: Create clear technical standards that articulate who will benefit from the requirements, provide specific guidance and instructions for website developers and webmasters, and set up a system for iterative accessibility and usability testing of technologies. If a new Internet-related technology is available to research library users, it needs to be equally available to all users. This encompass all elements of online information, communication, and interaction.
  6. Research and Education: To promote innovation and new designs in accessibility, the institution will foster opportunities funding to support research for technology accessibility. It should also support accessibility development by providing best practice guides, developer handbooks, and other instructional materials for including accessibility in the design, development, and implementation processes. The organization will try provide meaningful education about the social importance of Internet accessibility and the benefits to society as a whole.
  7. Social Inclusion: Truly guaranteeing people with disabilities an equal place online could greatly alter the ways in which people with disabilities are perceived, treated, and included in society, in both the physical world and the online world.

* These standards were modified from Dr. Paul T. Jaeger’s foundational principles for Internet justice in his article “Internet Justice: Reconceptualizing the Legal Rights of Persons with Disabilities to Promote Equal Access in the Age of Rapid Technological Change.”

Technical Standards

Below you will find a list of some key principles of accessible design. Most accessibility principles can be implemented very easily and will not impact the overall “look and feel” of your web site.

  1. Provide appropriate alternative text
    Alternative text provides a textual alternative to non-text content (such as pictures and images) in web pages. It is especially helpful for people who are blind and rely on a screen reader to have the content of the website read to them.
  2. Provide appropriate document structure
    Headings, lists, and other structural elements provide meaning and structure to web pages. They can also facilitate keyboard navigation within the page.
  3. Provide headers for data tables
    Tables are used online for layout and to organize data. Tables that are used to organize tabular data should have appropriate table headers (the <th> element). Data cells should be associated with their appropriate headers, making it easier for screen reader users to navigate and understand the data table.
  4. Ensure users can complete and submit all forms
    Ensure that every form element (text field, checkbox, dropdown list, etc.) has a label and make sure that label is associated to the correct form element using the <label> element. Also make sure the user can submit the form and recover from any errors, such as the failure to fill in all required fields.
  5. Ensure links make sense out of context
    Every link should make sense if the link text is read by itself. Screen reader users may choose to read only the links on a web page. Certain phrases like “click here” and “more” must be avoided.
  6. Caption and/or provide transcripts for media
    Videos and live audio must have captions and a transcript. With archived audio, a transcription may be sufficient.
  7. Ensure accessibility of non-HTML content, including PDF files, Microsoft Word documents, PowerPoint presentations and Adobe Flash content
    In addition to all of the other principles listed here, PDF documents and other non-HTML content must be as accessible as possible. If you cannot make it accessible, consider using HTML instead or, at the very least, provide an accessible alternative. PDF documents should also include a series of tags to make it more accessible. A tagged PDF file looks the same, but it is almost always more accessible to a person using a screen reader.
  8. Allow users to skip repetitive elements on the page
    You should provide a method that allows users to skip navigation or other elements that repeat on every page. This is usually accomplished by providing a “Skip to Main Content,” or “Skip Navigation” link at the top of the page which jumps to the main content of the page.
  9. Do not rely on color alone to convey meaning
    The use of color can enhance comprehension, but do not use color alone to convey information. That information may not be available to a person who is colorblind and will be unavailable to screen reader users.
  10. Make sure content is clearly written and easy to read
    There are many ways to make your content easier to understand. Write clearly, use clear fonts, and use headings and lists appropriately.
  11. Make JavaScript accessible
    Ensure that JavaScript event handlers are device independent (e.g., they do not require the use of a mouse) and make sure that your page does not rely on JavaScript to function.
  12. Design to standards
    HTML compliant and accessible pages are more robust and provide better search engine optimization. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) allow you to separate content from presentation. This provides more flexibility and accessibility of your content.

* This list comes from WebAIM’s Principles of Accessible Design. This list does not present all accessibility issues, but by addressing these basic principles, you will ensure greater accessibility of your web content to everyone. You can learn more about accessibility at

Intellectual and Social Standards
Although technical standards for web accessibility are important, they are not enough to guarantee accessibility. Technology is constantly changing — our only chance of success is to enforce intellectual and social standards that make accessibility and inclusiveness core values at our institutions. This will ensure that diverse user needs are taken into account every time a new technology is created or purchased. Web accessibility is a social concern with technological components.

To this end, we encourage all research libraries to adopt and embrace the following intellectual and social standards of accessibility:

  1. Human beings are all different and diverse. Just as we celebrate the diversity of individuals in a cultural context, so should we design technologies that take diverse needs and preferences into account.
  2. Accessible design is innovative design. The same design principles that make technologies accessible — semantic mark-up, intuitive information hierarchy, machine-readable text — are also principles that promote mobile design and a semantic web.
  3. Technology has the potential to be a great equalizer — but inaccessible technology only further excludes people. Let’s embrace the potential of technology to let people be as independent, self-sufficient, and connected as possible.
  4. Research libraries should have user-focused policies and procedures for patrons with disabilities that are readily available and kept up to date. Accessibility service awareness needs to be a standard part of staff training. This will fulfill the mission of all libraries to be inclusive hubs of access to information.