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Why Every University Needs an Accessible Standard Website Template

Templatization can help institutions steer clear of common web accessibility errors — and ensure that all students have equal access to the content they need to succeed.

For the millions of college students who use assistive technology to interact with digital content, academic success depends on web accessibility. Accessible design, however, is complex. Website errors often include poor text contrast, missing alternative text for images, inaccurately formatted heading structure, confusing form controls, and improper labeling of buttons, links, and captions. Inaccessibility sets up barriers to understanding and deprives disabled students of equal access to learning.

The solution can be found in the implementation of a standard accessible website template. Templatization supports site managers and editors by limiting opportunities for error — and as a result, templates ensure content can be understood by students with disabilities. When a university's strategic digital plan includes a standard accessible website template, all students can succeed.

Why Templatize

Universities guarantee students of all abilities equal access to educational content. This guarantee extends to students who use assistive technology, like screen readers, to interact with digital information. Texas State University's Electronic Information Resources Accessibility Coordinator (EIRAC), Evan Pickrel, collaborates with the university's web development team to make sure students who use assistive technology have access to all digital content published by the university. The decision to move websites to a standard, templatized model has helped Texas State to carry out this mission successfully.

Serving students of all abilities is both a moral imperative and a legal requirement: Accessibility laws and policies guarantee students the legal right to interact with all digital content published on a university's websites. The U.S. Department of Justice offers accessibility standards in its Guidance on Web Accessibility and the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 sets forth criteria for evaluation of electronic resources. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigates compliance issues, which can lead to costly remediation efforts and expensive litigation.

Template Features

An accessible website template can be purchased from a vendor or created by an in-house development team. Templates should meet the standards set forth by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Texas State currently uses a customized version of the Magnolia content management system as the basis for its standard template. Its templatization model places the university firmly at the highest levels of national accessibility rankings among four-year colleges, according to the Higher Ed in 4k Project, an accessibility analysis of up to 100 web pages from every college and university in the United States.

Accessible website design requires a specific set of web development skills. Instead of requiring site managers and editors to have this skill set, templatization embeds code and offers tools designed to ensure digital accessibility. Templates regulate:

  • Heading structure;
  • Form controls;
  • Text to background contrast;
  • Text font and size;
  • Alternative text inclusion; and
  • Labeling of buttons, links, and captions.

The W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) platform offers additional materials, guidance, and website testing tools to promote digital accessibility.

Impacts of Templatization

A template eradicates most, if not all, common accessibility issues. The template can mandate adequate text contrast, alternative text for images, accurate heading structure, and properly labeled buttons, links, and captions. Bringing into focus templatization's benefits, Pickrel shares this hypothetical: "If 65% of a university's accessibility errors are due to website design at the template level, and 35% are editor introduced, a standardized template reduces errors and centralizes monitoring and adjustment." In short, a template eliminates most errors, leaving only editor-introduced issues to monitor and adjust.

Templatization achieves this sharp decrease in accessibility flaws by providing web editors with an error-free environment. Templates also facilitate identification of accessibility issues and streamline remediation efforts. "Standardization has an appreciable impact and makes it incredibly easy to identify high-risk, high-volume problems and immediately fix them with one update to the content manager," Pickrel explained. At Texas State, he utilizes testing platforms like PopeTech to monitor websites. Weekly error reports are sent to website managers for remediation. As added benefits, a website template amplifies information security measures and supports adherence to university marketing brand guidelines.

Advantages of an In-House Web Development Team

While Pickrel's approach to ensuring website accessibility has evolved over the years, he prefers in-house web development teams if an institution can afford one. "Every university can benefit from a small, internal development team," he recommended. Texas State's own web developers are well-qualified and skilled in accessible website design, including proficiency in not only HTML5, CSS and JavaScript, but also ARIA, and the W3C's WCAG.

A skilled development team offers advantages like centralized oversight, customized websites, streamlined communications, and escalated remediation efforts. A dedicated team exercises greater control over the editor environment, reducing the number of editor errors possible, and serving the university's unique needs for branding, messaging, and campaign coordination. An internal development team also circumvents vendor contract disputes and avoids vendor introduced accessibility errors requiring months to remediate.

Whether your university has an in-house design team or contracts with a dependable website vendor, templatization is paramount. A template, vendor-created or custom-designed, is crucial to the success of students using assistive technologies. Templatization allows editors to focus solely on the publication of accessible digital content, streamlines remediation efforts, and enhances accessibility across the institution's websites. Proactive planning for universal digital accessibility allows the entire student population to thrive, and templatized websites support students of all abilities.

To learn more about accessibility efforts at Texas State University, visit the Division of Information Technology's Digital Accessibility website.

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