The two terms 'usability' and 'accessibility' are frequently used when talking about website design, often interchangeably, without ever defining what is meant.


Accessibility is a general term used to describe the degree to which a system is usable by as many people as possible. More specifically for the web, accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the web.

The UK Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 has numerous provisions for accessibility, none of which refers explicitly to websites, but make it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities.

How does that apply to my website?

The good news is that the overall accessibility of the website is largely embedded in the CMS and is looked after by CiCS. They try to make the website adheres to accessibility rules as defined by W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), although this has been modified in accordance with advice from RNIB.

There are however specific considerations and rules that should be adhered to when designing the content of a website and making it usable by people of all abilities and disabilities.

Disabilities that are considered include:

  • Visual: Visual impairments including blindness, various common types of low vision and poor eyesight and various types of colour blindness.
  • Motor/Mobility: e.g. difficulty or inability to use the hands, including tremors, muscle slowness, loss of fine muscle control, etc., due to conditions such as Parkinson's Disease, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, stroke.
  • Auditory: Deafness or hearing impairments, including individuals who are hard of hearing.
  • Seizures: Photoepileptic seizures caused by visual strobe or flashing effects.
  • Cognitive/Intellectual: Developmental disabilities, learning disabilities (dyslexia, dyscalculia, etc.), and cognitive disabilities of various origins, affecting memory, attention, developmental "maturity," problem-solving and logic skills, etc.

How does this apply to my website?

Luckily most of the issues that affect people with these disabilities are dealt with by CiCS, website-wide. There are however some ways in which you can ensure your website is more accessible.

  • Meaningful alt text - CMS by default makes you fill in the 'alt text' field for any images added to a web page. However, it is important that the text used is meaningful; it is what will be read out by a screen reader, or displayed on a text-only browser. (This is also a useful way to add keywords that will be picked up by a search engine.)

    The text should transmit the information which the picture is transmitting, which is not necessarily the same as what the picture looks like. For example, the University Crest says to the viewer "this is something to do with the University of Sheffield". If you make the alt text read "University Crest" it is likely to be meaningless to someone who has never seen the crest, but if you make it "The University of Sheffield" it transmits the general meaning of the Crest.
  • Meaningful links - Make sure links make sense without having to read around them. Screen readers can be set to scan a page and read out the links. Try to tell the user where each link goes, or if it downloads a file, that it will do this. "Click here" or "download" is meaningless; "Information about Keys" or "Annual Report (PDF)" are examples of more meaningful link names.
  • Use plain English - Sentences should be short, concise and in plain English to aid users with dyslexia and other learning difficulties.
  • Avoid horizontal scrolling - Make sure you don't introduce the need to horizontal scroll by adding extra wide images. By default the templates will fit to the screen size, but large objects like graphics cannot be reduced by the user and might cause scrolling.

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