Illinois’ Commitment to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and Digital Accessibility

According to the World Health Organization in 2022, an estimated 1 in 6 people worldwide experience significant disability. Additionally, according to WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind), over 96% of the top one million web pages are not accessible. Fortunately, there are many coordinated efforts to improve web accessibility across the world, one of them being the creation and updates of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. 

The new Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.2 were released October 2023. Starting January 1, 2024, the University will require all internally developed electronic information (such as websites) be up to the WCAG 2.2 standards. 

WCAG standards are developed through the W3C process (World Wide Web Consortium) in collaboration with individuals and organizations worldwide. The W3C process ensures that all standards—including the WCAG ones—are under the same umbrella standards created by this global group. 

WCAG guidelines help to ensure that technology accessibility solutions are not up to each individual developer, but consistent universally, meeting a wide range of disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities. The WCAG working group is continually discussing how well the standards meet the needs of technology users with disabilities and are seeking solutions to improve them. 

Mark McCarthy, Quality Assurance Lead Accessibility Engineer with Administrative Information Technology Services (AITS), expressed excitement for two specific requirements that were added with the WCAG 2.2 update: Redundant Entry and Accessible Authentication. Redundant Entry aims to make data entry easier by requiring applications to only ask for specific information once. Accessible Authentication requires developers to not make people solve, recall or transcribe something to log in. 

“I primarily use a keyboard to get around the internet and various apps, and Redundant Entry and Accessible Authentication are two huge pain points for me (and many people) that haven’t been meaningfully addressed up until now with respect to holistic accessibility.” 

McCarthy specifically mentioned possible improvement of CAPTCHAs (online tests to determine whether a user is a human or bot). “Finding ways to make them more accessible to everyone is exciting. Redundant Entry is also poised to be a huge help to so many people – I’m always thankful to reduce the amount of places I have to retype anything.” 

ADA IT Coordinator at Illinois, Keith Hays, under the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, emphasizes the importance of functional accessibility alongside the WCAG standards. 

“Functional accessibility is about ensuring that a technology is actually usable by those with disabilities, without consideration of technical standards. For example, is a website actually useable by someone who is blind, or does it remain very difficult to navigate and interact with it despite technically meeting WCAG requirements?” 

“Focusing only on WCAG requirements can lead to a technically conformant but not very useable experience for some individuals. This is why accessibility law and campus policy have functional accessibility requirements as well,” said Hays. 

What are the main updates?

Below are some of the significant additions to the WCAG standards, as stated by Hays, Illinois’ ADA IT Coordinator. To read full details of the changes, visit the official documentation at What’s New in WCAG 2.2. 

  • Focus Not Obscured (Success Criterion (SC) 2.4.11) — This assists users who are sighted, but do not use a mouse to navigate by requiring that an on-screen item that has a keyboard focus is at least partially visible. 
  • Dragging Movements (SC 2.5.7) — This assists users who cannot perform a dragging operation either with a mouse or finger. This requires that any dragging action have a simple pointer alternative. 
  • Target Size (SC 2.5.8) — This clarifies how big an interaction target (i.e. a button) should and how far away from other interaction targets it should be placed. 
  • Consistent Help (SC 3.2.6) — This requires that help information that exists on multiple pages should be in the same place for easier navigation. 
  • Redundant Entry (SC 3.3.7) — This aims to make data entry easier for all users by reducing the need to enter the same information multiple times. This requires that applications only ask for specific information once. 
  • Accessible Authentication (SC 3.3.8) — This requires developers to not make people solve, recall or transcribe something to log in. 

There was also one notable removal from the WCAG 2.1 requirements: 

  • Parsing (SC 4.1.1) — Parsing was a step that web browsers and assistive technologies required to create an accessible presentation of the contents of a web page. Now, browsers are good at correcting errors as a page loads, and assistive technologies can now rely on the browser readers instead of relying on the check for parsing errors. 

How will the university implement WCAG 2.2, or how is the university already implementing it?

Illinois is committed to maintaining an accessible and inclusive campus culture in all aspects—including in its use of technology. 

WCAG requirements are already implemented at the University in a couple ways. The Website Implementation Guidelines Group (WIGG) is a cross-campus group of web experts working to build an accessible theme and guidelines for digital content on campus. The University template created by WIGG is used widely across the University already follows the WCAG 2.1 success criteria. 

According to Melissa Waller, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) Director of Web Development and co-chair of WIGG, the 3.0 version of the accessible campus theme is currently being built out, and the design team within WIGG is beginning to look at the new requirements to incorporate them into the new theme. 

“We are creating the first comprehensive design system in Figma, and it will be version 3.0 that matches up with the components. Our goal is to create a system in Figma that can be shared to campus designers, developers, etc. We want to clean up inconsistencies in the current product, create a more streamlined process to hand off from design to development, and foster growth and development of talent pool contributing to the new system,” said Waller. 

Besides implementing the recent guidelines into a future version of the University theme, other parts of campus are working to keep campus up-to-date on the WCAG accessibility standards. As ADA IT Coordinator, Hays offered multiple areas in which campus currently ensures WCAG standards are met: 

  • The universal design team at CITL assists those creating online courses to design and implement their online material according to best practices for universal design in learning and WCAG 2.x. 
  • Alternative Media Services at Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES), helps convert course materials into an accessible format and to caption multimedia, both of which fulfill WCAG 2.x requirements. 
  • Software procurements include WCAG 2.0 Level AA as a contractual requirement for vendors to meet, and new procurements are evaluated to see if they meet that standard. 
  • The Quality Assurance and Assessment team at Technology Services is one group performing evaluations on campus, with one notable example of their work being the evaluation of add-ons for Canvas. 
  • AITS performs evaluation of technologies managed by the system office, and there is a third-party evaluation firm that can be easily engaged through CDW for other procurements. 
  • Digital Accessibility policy requires that each major administrative unit (academic and non-academic), appoint one or more IT Accessibility Liaisons (ITALs). These ITALs serve as a first point of contact to advise units on multiple areas of digital accessibility. ITALs refer to the latest recommended WCAG requirements as they assist their units. 
  • There is a new web accessibility scanning service starting up soon. This service will automatically scan all campus websites for compliance with WCAG 2.2. These scans will be followed by a manual evaluation (again using WCAG 2.2 as a standard) that will assist site owners to correct any areas of non-compliance. This evaluation will help guide education and remediation efforts. 

Campus efforts over the years towards a more accessible online space have not gone unseen. 

“I’m very pleased to see the University lurching towards greater inclusion and accessibility for our online presence,” said McCarthy, Lead Accessibility Engineer at AITS. “Having been a student here for years and now staff, I’ve seen a great deal of improvement over the years. It takes a lot of work, passion, time, and effort on the part of everyone here – students, faculty, staff, you name it – to make our campus and University more accessible and I’m so pleased to have so many collaborators and co-conspirators who are helping to drive that change.” 

As ADA IT Coordinator under the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Hays works to coordinate and oversee digital accessibility compliance efforts on campus among the many groups involved in implementing the WCAG requirements. 

As part of coordination of digital accessibly efforts, Hays also helps interpret accessibility law, including the WCAG 2.2 standards; ensures all the campus efforts are aligned; identifies resourcing, policy and procedural needs on campus; and ensures the provision of education and outreach efforts surrounding digital accessibility. 

“The university is committed to digital accessibility, and I am pleased to say that campus leadership is taking it seriously, especially in the light of the coming changes to ADA Title II, which will require WCAG 2.1 as the technical standard for governmental entities like public universities,” said Hays. “A lot of initiatives that have been percolating in the background are beginning to come together, and I expect that a lot of exciting changes are coming in the next year.”