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GW meets Department of Education’s standards for website accessibility

Photo Illustration by Danielle Towers | Photographer
The federal education department has closed 550 of the 600 website accessibility investigations of higher education institutions it opened in 2018.

Three years after a disability discrimination complaint was filed against the University, officials have met the Department of Education’s standards for website accessibility.

University spokesperson Crystal Nosal said GW’s Digital Accessibility Committee was notified in September that the ED’s Office of Civil Rights has officially concluded GW’s “monitoring period” since the 2017 complaint. Website accessibility experts said maintaining digital accessibility is an ongoing process for universities and is particularly necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic as many students take classes online.

Nosal said officials implemented last spring a web content and accessibility policy, which affirms the University’s commitment to developing websites that are accessible to everyone. She said officials have implemented third-party technology systems, which monitor website accessibility, to more efficiently track accessibility across the University’s websites.

“The Office of Ethics, Compliance and Privacy along with Libraries and Academic Innovation, Marketing and Creative Services, Information Technology, Disability Support Services and others have made significant progress in ensuring public-facing websites are accessible through website template modifications,” she said in an email.

Nosal said officials have also addressed “academic tools,” like websites, videos and grading platforms for accessibility, to ensure a positive academic environment. She said officials have established a feedback system, monitored by the Digital Accessibility Committee, that community members can use to share thoughts on GW’s online accessibility.

“Top priority has been given to the websites and systems that are most frequently used by our community as well as those that are critical to the student experience,” she said.

Nosal declined to say what feedback officials have heard from students about website accessibility.

An education department official confirmed that GW has met its accessibility standards and that the department determined in September that the monitoring period was over.

The official said the department launched 600 investigations in 2018 throughout the country as part of an initiative to improve digital accessibility at schools nationwide. The official said 550 of the investigations, including GW’s, are now closed.

Experts in website and digital accessibility said using third-party technologies like Siteimprove, which GW employs, to monitor website accessibility is a useful tool for universities like GW that have a relatively large number of webpages.

Kitty Bridges, the associate vice president of digital accessibility at New York University, said although GW has achieved the measures ED demanded, achieving 100 percent accessibility is impossible because universities always have areas of improvement.

“This is an ongoing journey that is never done,” she said. “We are all focused on accessibility becoming part of our daily lives and not an add-on at the last minute. This is all integral to our inclusive communities. Build right, test, get feedback and learn – rinse and repeat.”

Bridges said the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which GW is abiding by, require that digital content must be “perceivable, operable, understandable and robust.”

“WCAG is what we call ‘success’ focused rather than being prescriptive,” she said. “You meet the WCAG standards if your website can be successfully used by those with disabilities who may or may not use assistive technologies – keyboard only, screen reader software. In some cases there may be different ways to meet the success criteria.”

Joe Zesski, the assistant director of the Northeast Americans with Disabilities Act Center at Cornell University, said having robust website accessibility standards is especially helpful for students during the pandemic, as most students are taking classes virtually.

“There are times where there may be difficulties on the website depending on what browser someone is using or depending on the particular interface that they are using to access the website,” Zesski said. “Having that conversation with people who do submit problems is an important step.”

He said the same amount of effort that’s put into making buildings physically accessible should be put into constructing accessible websites.

“We are getting closer, but people are still getting used to the idea of building accessibility into the digital architecture so that someone who has to use a keyboard to navigate a page can go through and access everything that is readable on the page and someone who is not able to hear is able to get the information from a video with captions,” he said.

Zesski said using third-party technologies to monitor website accessibility is effective for having software tools that run and check websites for accessibility features, like specific alt tags on images.

“They are often very useful and effective because when you have as many pages as an institution like GW has, it is very difficult to cover all of those by an individual,” he said. “So having software to run and check all the pages is very helpful.”

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