Optimizing accessibility on Gettysburg.edu

♿️ Gettysburg College wanted to improve accessibility. We analyzed the site, fixed checkpoint failures, changed our internal process, and are building a system of modular components to foster inclusive design.

My digital strategy team worked with our partners in IT to break this challenge down into three phases: triage the site’s UI and critical pathways to fix the most urgent issues; design and deliver training to content producers; and develop and systematize accessible UX patterns to enable a proactive approach to accessibility.

User interface and content remediation

We used automated and manual methods to test the site for compliance with the WCAG 2.0 AA standard, finding four common problems:

  • incorrect ARIA navigational landmarks,
  • screen reader issues with forms,
  • insufficient color contrast in links, and
  • navigation and tagging issues with PDFs.

To resolve these issues, we first remediated the site’s user interface at the template level. We then tracked down business-critical pages and documents that needed to be fixed independently. The initial “triage” of the site took three weeks. Testing is now a routine part of our work.

AInspector plugin report for a page on Gettysburg.edu showing 0 violations or warnings.
Testing the changes needed to resolve WAI-ARIA landmark errors and WCAG 2.0 contrast errors on Gettysburg.edu using the AInspector plugin.

Contributor training program

The next step was to analyze our digital operations to determine the common sources of inaccessible content. I sought out the underlying business needs driving current practice across the organization, and devised a pragmatic approach to accessibility that staff could incorporate into their existing workflows.

Comparison of PDF flyer accessibility for tagged versus untagged files.
Demonstrating how much content screen readers can access in a PDF based on the methods and care used to create it.

Firstly, I designed and implemented a training program to teach contributors the fundamentals of document structure in MS Word—the source of most of our web content. To encourage contributors to move away from PDFs for web content and forms, we created a PDF-to-HTML conversion process. These practices ensure that new content meets our accessibility standard.

MS Word document with logical heading structure, Styles panel, and zero Accessibility errors.
We teach content editors how to configure Word to produce structured documents and check for accessibility errors.
dotCMS content in WYSIWYG editor mode, containing pasted content from the Word document above.
Structured content that has been prepared in Word can be copied into our CMS, retaining it’s semantics while omitting formatting such as fonts, colors, text size, etc.

A system for inclusive design

The third phase—currently underway—is to systematize UX components so contributors can meet their business needs using accessible methods. We will define and document a library that enables stakeholders to map specific user objectives with supported, tested, reliable content structures and interaction patterns.

Popular majors pie chart with data table, annotated with markup for screen readers.
A markup pattern for accessible data visualization. An ARIA label describes the pie chart image, while a full tabular representation of the data (hidden by default) is available by clicking a “View data” button.

This approach has two benefits: it incentivizes content producers to think about accessibility in the design phase, and—integrated with the right kind of measurement—it also provides a tactical framework for managing other kinds of performance concerns, such as:

  • Search Engine Optimization—proper document structure, for example, helps both screen readers and search engines.
  • Key Site Interactions—we can ensure user flows through forms are accessible and optimize their components to reduce abandonment rates.

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