Vermont Arts Council

Arts. Sites. 4 Everyone.

You have audience members who can’t see very well, can’t hear well, or can’t use a mouse. How successful would they be at navigating your website?

We’re all familiar with considerations of physical accessibility for arts events (accessible building entrances, bathrooms, and parking spaces). Making our online information available is equally important — but harder to understand. A ton of information is available, but some of it is dated, some confusing, and some in a format contradicting current standards.

If this topic is overwhelming to you, join the club. We have been there. Here are some bare bones facts and a few fixes you might try.

Breaking it Down

According to their website, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is “an international community that develops open standards to ensure the long-term growth of the Web.” Among their standards, you find the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (commonly abbreviated WCAG and pronounced wuh’-kag), developed with “a goal of proving a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally.” The most current is WCAG2. There are three levels of compliance: A, AA, and AAA. The U.S. Department of Justice has not officially adopted these guidelines, but in recent lawsuits held organizations responsible to comply to Level AA to meet Section 508 requirements.

Back to our examples in the first paragraph: Those users who don’t operate their computer with a mouse are addressed in Guideline 2.1 which says, “Make all functionality available from a keyboard.” This means the site can be navigated using tab, shift+tab, and other key combinations. Guideline 1.2.2. benefits those who don’t hear well or at all: “Synchronized captions are provided for non-live web-based video (YouTube videos, etc.).”

Another organization, WebAIM, works to make sure the guidelines are understood. They provide training, some free testing tools, and a great checklist which includes specific recommendations for meeting the WCAG2 Guidelines. If you understand the role of these organizations, you’ve got a good start.

What Can You Do?

Whether you are designing a new site or working on the one you have, start where you are. If you haven’t already, consider taking these three actions; each of them will have a positive effect on users accessing the web with a screen reader. As with most accessible design practices, these concepts benefit everyone.

Here are the Bylaws on the Council’s website.

1. Organize Your Content

Most screen reader users organize the content by headings or links. If you rely solely on visual attributes of text (formatting as larger, bolder, or another color) to organize your pages, the structure is invisible to a screen reader. Use headings 1-6. These are either defined in your content management system or designated via HTML.

2. Kill “Click Here”

If a page of your site were broken down to its links, then read out loud, what would you hear? Hopefully not, “link. click here. link. click here. link. click here. link. click here.”

Links are easily recognized now, and don’t need to come with directions. Use descriptive language for the link, and when possible, try to avoid using the same language as another link on the page.

Applying WebAIM's WAVE tool to the Bylaws page reveals how headings help to structure the page.
Applying WebAIM’s WAVE tool to the Bylaws page reveals how headings help to structure the page.

3. Describe Your Images. Sometimes.

Images need a succinct description if they add content to the page. If the image has a caption, it probably doesn’t need to be described. It’s the same with decorative images — unless they are also a link. Always consider both context and function.

When you’re adding images, look for an indication you can add “alternative text” or “alt text.” If you’re using HTML, add an alt attribute. Here’s an explanation.

It’s the Tip of the Iceberg

This is just a beginning, but making these changes will go a long way toward making your website accessible to the broadest population of users. The Arts Council is committed to equal access in all we do, including the continued development of our website. There is always more to be done; we hope you’ll join us along the way!


Top image: Heidi Swevens (VSA Vermont) demonstrates one way websites are accessed with adaptive software by users with low vision.

If you want to see how a screen reader works, here are some you can download for free.


Susan McDowell