Developing accessible web content

In our recent post Making learning accessible through technology, Tab Betts (@MrTabKey) took us through some valuable tools that promote inclusivity, productivity and help overcome what are for some significant barriers to learning.

Dr David Sloan

Dr David Sloan – UX Research Lead, The Paciello Group

A growing range of free content creation tools (e.g. WordPress) and intuitive social media platforms (e.g Facebook) have opened up web authoring to the masses, but as non-experts in web content creation this can inadvertently result in the introduction of accessibility challenges. 

Authoring tools

A good authoring tool can help authors avoid accessibility problems by whenever possible automatically generating code that meets accessibility standards, and by prompting authors to manually add features that promote accessibility, when this can’t be automated.

Unfortunately, current tools have varying levels of support for generating accessible content, and provide varying levels of guidance to authors in creating accessible content. The result is content that often includes basic, but significant, barriers for disabled people.

In this follow-up blog post, guest contributor Dr David Sloan (UX Research Lead, The Paciello Group) and Dr David Walker (Head of Technology Enhanced Learning, University of Sussex) highlight the accessibility challenges that should be considered when developing content for the web, and the need to evaluate the extent to which the tools we use support the production of accessible outputs.

Accessibility guidelines


Logo of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

Digital tools can be significant enablers to accessible learning, indeed in a recent workshop at the University of Sussex Alistair McNaught (Jisc) argued that the provision of resources in digital formats should be a ‘learner
entitlement’ as they are natively more accessible.

Your first recommended stop when thinking about the process of developing accessible web content, and the tools you will use or provide authors with, is the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) 2.0 produced by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Designed to support those developing tools for creating accessible web content, the guidelines also serve as a useful framework for evaluating the extent to which digital tools support authors to create accessible content.

A separate but related set of guidelines specifically relating to the content itself is the more familiar Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG is also produced by the W3C), which should also be considered.

How easily does a tool support authors to create accessible outputs?

When reviewing a tool ATAG 2.0 provides us with some useful pointers to guide our evaluation.  To what extend does the tool support:

  • keyboard navigability of interactive content
  • the production of valid code
  • provision of clear structural mark-up, for example promoting use of headings over enlarging text so that it resembles a heading but lacks the markup
  • the ability to add alternative text for images and multimedia
  • the ability for authors to choose options that enhance rather than detract from accessibility, for example colour schemes that don’t present contrast issues
  • the ability to check for and repair accessibility issues as part of the pre-publishing quality assurance process

ATAG also provides guidance on assessing how well the tool can be used by authors with disabilities to create digital content.

Real digital inclusion means that people with disabilities can independently and successfully produce as well as consume digital content.

Implications of accessibility limitations

Failure of a tool to conform to aspects of the ATAG guidelines places significant emphasis on the author having an understanding of the principles of accessible design, responsibility for checking accessibility limitations, and by extension a requirement to produce suitable alternatives if necessary. It might also increase the load on learning technology/IT departments or other organisations responsible for ensuring content meets an institutional accessibility standard before it is published.

It is unreasonable for all users to have this level of expertise. The onus must therefore be on tool providers to ensure they provide relevant accessibility help and institutions to provide relevant training to staff producing digital content.

When evaluating the suitability of any new digital content creation tool it’s important therefore to think not only about the content itself but the process by which that content is created and how effectively the authoring tool supports accessible authoring.

Increasing awareness of ATAG 2.0 will help not only address some of the many accessibility barriers that users face when interacting with the learning content Universities produce but it will also encourage software vendors to pay greater heed to this standard when developing authoring tools.

Further Information and resources

Lots of useful advice and guidance to institutions on how to create inclusive teaching and learning experiences for students is available on the Jisc Accessibility Organisations Blog.

Do you have any tips on how to ensure web accessibility? Join the discussion by replying to this post or emailing us at

Head of Technology Enhanced Learning, University of Sussex

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One comment on “Developing accessible web content
  1. Cindy Newell says:

    I really like the way that the term ‘productivity’ is being highlighted as an enhancement to the more commonly used ‘accessibility’ in the consideration of what we all want our technological tools to do. I think it is a positive reminder that all students and staff benefit by being enabled to be active and creative partners in inclusive ways of delivering teaching and learning. We can all experience barriers to working productively, and I am enjoying the TEL blogs in a personal and professional capacity, so keep up the good work!

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