The internet, while often praised for its inclusivity, is rarely one size fits all. Every day, inaccessible web design prevents millions of people with disabilities from enjoying uncomplicated access to online information — something many would consider a basic human right. And yet, even with 20% of the global population living with a disability, investing in more inclusive digital content continually falls to the bottom of the priority list.
For most organizations, this neglect is the result of a single persistent shortcoming: people without disabilities simply don’t know what needs to be fixed. Enter Monsido, a web governance tool that takes out the guesswork by identifying coding issues that would otherwise be unapparent to those who don’t have disabilities.
Derek Whiteside and Gabe Merrell, the pair who brought Monsido to Oregon State in 2018, call the tool “a Swiss army knife” for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Monsido scans our domains weekly across multiple dimensions to identify any issue that might hinder accessibility and usability or result in a violation risk,” says Whiteside, who serves as Oregon State’s director of web and mobile services.
“Those errors could be broken links, missing image descriptions, grammar errors…any spot where quality is lacking, we’ll know about it.”
In an organization as decentralized as a public university, this streamlined review process is crucial. Monsido highlights concerns like missing alternative text or a lack of heading structure, then presents them in dashboard form to the website manager. From there, it’s a matter of using the tool’s amateur–friendly review system to make accessibility changes on a routine basis.
“Most of the folks managing our websites are not website professionals,” says Merrell, Oregon State’s director for access and affirmative action within the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access. “We’re talking office assistants who have been tasked with updating their units’ websites or communicators with just enough web experience to get by. Having a tool that helps laypeople find those compliance issues that aren’t apparent to those of us that don’t have disabilities is huge.”
Imagine for a moment that you are a legally blind person, shopping on your college bookstore’s website for a required chemistry textbook. You need to be able to locate the correct title, in the right edition, input a voucher provided by your professor and check out with your debit card. Not too much to ask, right? Screen reader ready, you take the routine steps required for a blind person to navigate a website built for sighted people.
But the web page you need is tucked inside a non-descriptive hyperlink that says “click here.” The arrow you’d use to get to the second page of titles was improperly labeled. And the thumbnail image of the book you’re looking for is lacking descriptive alternative text.
For a sighted person, these little hiccups would never become a barrier — in fact, they’d be entirely unnoticeable. But for a legally blind person? Those errors could be reason enough to leave the site and never come back.
“So often I find myself asking, “Are we doing the best we can for disabled folks? If our websites aren’t accessible to 20% of the population, we’ve certainly failed,” Merrell says. “And I’d hate for us to lose a student or hinder someone from coming to OSU because they’ve visited our sites and realized they can’t use them.”
Making digital platforms accessible and usable to everyone, regardless of age, language, education or ability is a vital part of inclusivity. Unfortunately, many institutions wait for disadvantaged groups on the receiving end to make complaints, rather than taking a proactive approach to accessibility.
“As with any identity–based inclusion effort, relying on the target group to fix the problem is inherently flawed,” says Merrell. “We should never be relying on people with disabilities to bring these issues to our attention, especially with tools like Monsido available. It’s up to us to remove barriers to access before they ever become a real problem.”
In practice, this means taking the time to develop user interfaces that are intuitive, flexible and perceptible to all types of users, regardless of age, size or physical, sensory or intellectual ability or disability. Whiteside describes it as “personalizing and contextualizing digital interactions,” something his team in University Information and Technology is working hard to make more commonplace.
“It might sound silly to say this, but people with disabilities are people,” says Merrell. “Working to make our websites more accessible communicates that the disabled community matters, that they are part of the conversation and that we’re working hard to do right by them.”
At Oregon State, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
To learn more about Monsido or get advice on bringing it to your organization, contact Web and Mobile Services, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seeking specific accessibility advice? Get in touch with Equal Opportunity and Access, email@example.com.
We look forward to hearing from you!