Using Drupal to Support Web Accessibility in Higher Education
by Chris Hartigan
Web accessibility in higher education is not a new topic. For over 15 years most institutions have been working to insure that their web accessibility adheres to the standards and protocols set forth in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1998 (even though 508, as written, does not automatically apply to institutions of higher education, even those that receive federal funding). And certainly before the benchmark of 508 came around colleges and universities have been leaders in making sure that technology usage around campus supported the diverse needs of the entire community. In fact, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act mandating accessibility for unilateral “program access” has been a requirement for many colleges and universities dating back to 1973.
But despite this history the topic of web accessibility in higher education remains top-of-mind and comes up every day in conversations that our team has with colleges and universities of all shapes and sizes. With institutions driving more and more communication and engagement through the web there is a greater dependence on digital platforms to serve an entirety of needs, but with upwards of 20% of all Americans dealing with disabilities that can make web navigation a challenge the challenge remains acute: how can colleges and universities continue to use the web to drive their business goals while at the same time fully meeting the needs of their entire community – including those members of the community that they don’t even know they have to serve. And of course there’s a carrot and a stick component to this challenge as well: solve the problem successfully and there are “inclusive” enrollment, retention and advancement benefits. Fail to solve the problem and there can be a very punishing financial and reputational impact. There are several articles that highlight some of the pain that colleges and universities have felt as a result of not adhering to web accessibility standards.
The first point to take away from this discussion is that many schools recognize that Drupal is part of the solution when it comes to web accessibility (which is why our team is having so many conversations on the topic these days!). Drupal is a “modern” CMS, conceived well after the first Section 508 requirements were developed and it has evolved during a time when “accessibility-first” has become the norm for web design as opposed to an afterthought. Mobile and social have also been part of the Drupal lexicon from the very beginning, thus supporting the ability to deliver accessible web sites that are actually relevant to how people use and access the web today. And of course, Drupal is the standard CMS for the highest levels of the federal government (whitehouse.gov, education.gov, etc) and having these front-line partners collaborate with the larger Drupal community regarding Drupal’s support of web accessibility standards is a benefit that no other content management system can point to.
If you are considering working with Drupal (or if you already are) and want to make sure that your school’s web sites adhere to Section 508 compliance there are a myriad of available resources to help you, from full subject matter overviews in a higher education setting (here is a great one from one of our clients, University of Minnesota), to helpful white papers, and even “how-to” webinars. Also the biggest strength of Drupal is the community, and all it takes is a quick search on Drupal.org or DrupalModules.com to find several modules that have been contributed that you can use to help set up, scan, audit, and manage your Drupal website for accessibility. Curious as to which ones are used by more schools that others to help manage accessibility…? Just ask… the community is here to help you! More than anything, with Drupal you know that you are not in it alone – you are part of an encompassing effort that’s larger than your own site and that you will benefit from as a result.
The second point to take away from this discussion is that as you dig into this subject you will learn that achieving “accessibility” is about more than the platform you use – it’s also very much about how you use it. There’s a plethora of information to help in that area as well, so much that we'll save that for another post!
Most important with Drupal is that accessibility is not an afterthought, it’s core to the DNA of the platform and the community and that’s why more higher education institutions choose to build compliant, accessible websites on Drupal than any other system. So in the Drupal world accessibility is not a new topic but it can be a comfortable one and we want to help make it so for your institution.