SSCC Guidance on the University's Accessibility Policy

As most of you are aware, last December the University announced that all web pages hosted on University servers (anything with in the URL) must be level AA compliant with the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These give a set of "checkpoints" web pages should meet, with priorities assigned for each one. There is a great deal of confusion and uncertainty about this policy, but it would affect anyone that creates web pages. As a trivial example, any page that includes pictures must include a text description of those pictures (an ALT tag) so that visually impaired users know what's on the page. Unfortunately not all the checkpoints contained in the guidelines are so easily achieved.

Here are some of the requirements that are most like to require revisions to your web page:

  • HTML markup must be used for its intended purpose, not to achieve a certain look. For example: header tags (H1-H6) can only be used for headings, not to control font size.
  • Tables must make sense when read by a screen reader. They read left to right, row by row (NOT column by column).
  • All pages must include a navigation bar.
  • All sites must include a site map.

And the big one that will probably require that you not only revise your web site, but also learn some new techniques:

  • Features that have been designated as "deprecated" (in the process of being phased out) in HTML 4 must not be used. These include features that control the look of a web page like font and alignment tags. Instead, HTML 4 calls for the use of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) for this purpose. Thus if you want to so much as change the font on your web page, you will have to use CSS.

It should be noted that CSS is a new technology, and only the more recent browsers support it. Netscape 4.7 implements most of the features of CSS (Netscape 6 is unreliable and we do not recommend its use), but Internet Explorer 5's implementation is much better. Once everyone has converted their web pages to use CSS, if you want to see University web pages the way the author intended you will need to use Internet Explorer 5.

If this were all, there wouldn't be the sense of panic that often accompanies discussion of these guidelines. Even style sheets aren't that difficult to use. Unfortunately there are some more controversial issues:

  • The plainest reading of Guideline 11 and checkpoint 11.1 is that the Adobe PDF format cannot be used. Instead, such documents must be posted as web pages. Note that the use of PDF files has been the subject of complaints under the Americans with Disabilities Act, because they cannot be read by the screen readers used by the blind. Adobe Systems Incorporated is developing tools to make PDF files accessible by converting PDF documents into HTML. Unfortunately, these tools currently do not work reliably and it is not clear that they can be improved.
  • Guideline 2 says that mathematical equations must be presented using MathML (Math Markup Language). However, no current browser supports MathML, though some specialized viewers exist.

Obviously replacing all PDF files with web pages would be a tremendous amount of work, and using MathML seems futile if no one can read it.

This leads to the question of interpreting and enforcing this policy. As far as we know (and as far as DoIT knows) there is no mechanism in place to do either. The SSCC has no plans to enforce this policy, however we suspect that the University will enforce it someday, if only to avoid complaints under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Thus we are taking it seriously, and suggest you do too.

Officially, as of January 22, 2001 all new or revised web pages are supposed to be compliant. We suspect this has been widely ignored. As of January 22, 2002 all web pages, new and old, are to be compliant. This seems like the logical time for the University to begin enforcement, so this is the date we are focused on.

We are committed to helping you comply with this policy. Our first step has been to try to understand the policy and gain the technical skills to comply with it. This is to some degree ongoing. We are exploring the feasibility of making more powerful web design software available to all our users, as well as one or more pre-made style sheets. Accessibility will now be part of our standard class on creating a web site, and in addition we will offer classes on converting current web sites. (The first class is already scheduled and you can register at SSCC's web page.) Along with these classes will come documentation that will cover similar material. Finally we will be happy to work with you one on one (especially if you have a large web site to convert). Please contact Russell Dimond (email:

DoIT is also offering web accessibility resources including courses and individual help testing and fixing web pages. Many of these resources are not free. They have more detailed information on the policy and the guidelines, as well as links to their resources available at

Last Revised: 2/1/2001