Vetting Web Tools for Accessibility

by Christine Scherer

Recently, Instructional Technologist William Guth has written about Web 2.0 Selection Criteria, which help online learning faculty and staff select the best web tools for their course. One of those criteria is making sure that the tool is accessible. But how can you find out? Given the vast variety of tools available, it’s a tough question to answer. But there are a few things you can do to make sure that a web tool has some degree of accessibility for students.

What does accessibility mean?

In this instance, accessibility means making sure that a tool can be accessed and interacted with by all users. This includes people who use assistive technology, such as keyboard navigation, screen reader software, captions, or text magnifiers, to name a few. You can learn more about web accessibility on our Accessibility resources page.

Step One: Look for an accessibility statement.

Usually, you investigate a new tool by looking around the website. You look at features, options, costs, software compatibility, and so on–but do you look for an accessibility statement? This statement explains what steps the program has taken to be accessible, where it might fall short, and who to contact with further questions. Finding one is a great first step and will often answer a lot of the following questions.

But unfortunately, sometimes an accessibility statement doesn’t exist. In which case, you’ll have to dig deeper. One option is to contact the company and ask for information on accessibility. Sometimes, they’ll be able to provide a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), which is a standardized form that asks vendors and developers to assess the accessibility of their product. This is another useful source of information on how accessible a tool is. If no information is available, though, you’ll have to do some testing yourself.

Step Two: Keyboard navigation.

Many, many computer and web-based tools are designed to be used with a mouse or a touch screen. But for blind or low-vision people or people with physical disabilities, those aren’t an option. Instead, they may use the keyboard to navigate. But it’s something anyone can do! You can test out the basics by pressing tab a few times. Watch how different elements–called focus areas–are highlighted on the webpage. If you hit enter, you’ll activate that element and move to a different page. By jumping from focus area to focus area, keyboard users are able to interact with links, buttons, and other interaction points.

So, see if your new tool supports this kind of navigation. Load it up and see how well you can access the menus with just the keyboard. Are there certain areas that you can only get to with a mouse? That’s a potential accessibility issue.

Step Three: Color and Contrast.

Another important aspect to look for in your web tools is the use of color. Is there a high level of contrast between text and the background? Dark text on a light background, or light text on dark, are both good contrast options. But if you find yourself struggling to read the text due to the colors, that’s a concern.

It’s also important to make sure that color isn’t the only method for conveying information. Telling students to follow the directions in blue font or click the red arrow could be a problem for blind, low vision, or colorblind students who may not be able to see the colors. Color should be combined with patterns, shapes, and text to convey information. If a tool relies solely on color for information, it’s an accessibility issue.

Step Four: Text Equivalents.

If a tool uses images, audio, and/or video, it needs to provide text equivalents, or provide the option to add them in yourself. For example, an infographic creator should include places for you to add alternative text descriptions. A video recording tool should allow you to add captions or attach a transcript. If these options are missing, then many students will be unable to engage with the tool and the content you’ve created.


These are just a few of the many accessibility features that web tools can include, but they’re some of the most important. Students with disabilities rely on many of these supports to successfully navigate the web and online courses, and without them, they’ll be unable to access your content. So if you find a tool that’s lacking in these areas, it might be wise to consider a different approach or a different, more accessible tool.

If you want to learn more about accessibility, contact any of the Distance Learning staff!

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