Harvard University Digital Accessibility Policy FAQs

What does the Digital Accessibility Policy do?

We want our websites to reflect Harvard’s commitment to accessibility, so that everyone has an opportunity to access content that the University creates and posts. Harvard’s Digital Accessibility Policy establishes standards for accessibility for the University’s websites and web-based applications. It is designed to increase access to digital content and enhance the usability of the University’s online presence. Specifically, the Policy:

  • Requires University Websites that are created or substantially revised on or after December 1, 2019 to meet the generally accepted best practices for accessibility with respect to their platforms and infrastructure (WCAG 2.1 AA) .
  • Establishes that all owners of University Websites posting new digital content created and produced at Harvard on or after December 1, 2019, should aim to make that content conform to these best practices, to the extent technically feasible (WCAG 2.1 AA) .
  • Creates a new team within Harvard University Information Technology (HUIT), the Digital Accessibility Services group, which will provide training and outreach to staff and faculty, along with a range of services to help improve digital accessibility.
  • Calls for the creation of a University-wide Accessibility Steering Committee (ASC), which will establish and recommend a prioritization schedule for improving accessibility on certain existing University Websites, with priority given to the most highly trafficked websites.
  • Creates a University-wide network of Digital Accessibility Liaisons to help coordinate local efforts with those of the Digital Accessibility Services team.

Why should I strive for accessibility?

University Websites provide an online environment where knowledge and ideas can be easily shared. This exchange is most meaningful when it promotes inclusion. Many website owners may not realize the challenges that websites and digital content can present for individuals with disabilities. Fortunately, there are many opportunities to improve online accessibility.

For example, captioning a video will allow those who are deaf or hearing-impaired to engage with your content. Similarly, formatting a website so that it can be read by a screen reader allows it to be navigated by an individual who is blind or vision-impaired. A screen-readable webpage and a page with the same information that is not screen-readable may appear identical to a person without vision impairment. To a user who relies on a screen reader, however, the content on the page that is not screen-readable may be jumbled, disordered, impossible to interact with, or entirely inaccessible.

Likewise, accessible websites allow individuals who have mobility impairments and use only a keyboard or alternate input devices to use a website effectively. While accessibility improvements are essential for the inclusion of individuals with disabilities, most features enhance usability for site visitors without disabilities as well.

Which websites are covered by the Digital Accessibility Policy?

The Harvard University Digital Accessibility Policy applies to “University Websites,” meaning public-facing websites or web-based applications used to conduct “University Business” within a Harvard-controlled web domain. Harvard-controlled domains include harvard.edu and any other web domain registered by someone at Harvard in connection with University Business. Under the Policy, any activity carried out under the auspices of Harvard University is considered University Business, with the exception of activities organized or conducted by students or student organizations. This means that Harvard school, unit, center, and faculty websites on Harvard-controlled domains are covered by the Policy.

The University encourages owners of websites not subject to the Policy to use available resources and develop an inclusive digital presence accessible to the entire Harvard community.

What Accessibility Standards apply to a University Website?

For the purposes of Harvard’s Digital Accessibility Policy, the University uses the Worldwide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.1, Level AA (WCAG 2.1, Level AA). These are generally recognized best practices for public-facing websites.

How do I determine whether my website conforms with the Digital Accessibility Policy?

There are many ways to evaluate the accessibility of websites, web-based applications, and online content, including automatic website scanning, testing by experts, and accessibility checklists. Visit the tools section of HUIT’s Online Accessibility page to find a curated list of Harvard-licensed and publicly available automated and manual testing tools, browser extensions, etc. Additional checklists, guidelines, and training materials, including new types of online and in-person training that will be offered starting in summer 2019, will be provided to help the Harvard community assess and achieve accessibility on University Websites.

When does the Digital Accessibility Policy apply to my website?

Beginning December 1, 2019, all University Websites that are created or undergo substantial revision or redesign are expected to meet the Policy’s Accessibility Standards. Also beginning no later than December 1, 2019, those responsible for maintaining University Websites should aim to make accessible any new digital content created and produced at Harvard and posted on existing sites.

The Policy was adopted in April 2019 to allow time for the community to plan for and incorporate practices to ensure that covered sites come into conformance.

My website includes videos, audio files, images, PDFs, and other file types. Does the Policy apply to this content?

Generally yes. To elaborate:

If you are posting, hosting, or embedding content produced outside of the University, the Policy does not require you to make that third-party content accessible.

What resources, training, and tools will be available to assist me?

Many resources already exist for the creation of widely accessible online materials, including guidelines for content creators and developers and specific techniques for improving digital accessibility. You can get started today with the 10 Essentials for Content Creators and 10 Essentials for Developers.

Going forward, the University will introduce additional processes and procedures in support of the Policy. Starting in July 2019, a new Digital Accessibility Services team within HUIT will provide in-house expertise, training, and information to Harvard faculty and staff. In addition, each School and unit will appoint at least one Digital Accessibility Liaison to help coordinate local efforts and resources.

More information will be posted here in the coming months.

How can I ensure that accessibility is taken into account when contracting with an outside vendor?

Web products or services procured by Harvard units must meet acceptable levels of accessibility. For questions to ask vendors, considerations to evaluate, and language to include in contracts visit the procurement process section of this site.

Further information is available in the Accessible Technology Procurement and Development Policy adopted by HUIT and the University’s CIOs.

Are there costs associated with making my site accessible?

It depends. To make an uploaded document screen-readable may not require anything other than a few extra minutes. To caption a video may cost a small per-minute fee. For existing websites, costs may include services that help with the testing and remediation of a site’s design or content. When creating or revising a website, you will find that building accessibility requirements in at the front end of planning and design is less expensive and more efficient than trying to remediate barriers to accessibility on a completed site. After July 2019, the HUIT Digital Accessibility Services team will be able to help site owners plan for and pursue making websites and digital content accessible.

Where can I find more information about WCAG and digital accessibility?

The University has developed tools to help individuals incorporate WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards, which include the following:

In addition, WebAIM provides a simplified and printable WCAG 2.1 checklist.

I’ve just reviewed the WCAG guidelines and I am concerned that my website doesn’t conform to them. I don’t have a technical background. What do I do?

First, don’t panic. As these FAQs explain, many resources already are in place to support your efforts and the University will develop and implement still more oversight, staffing, and resources to support conformance with the Policy.

If you are working on a new website or a substantial redesign of your existing site and the target date for launch is on or after December 1, you will be able to contact HUIT Digital Accessibility Services for advice and assistance. If you are not planning to launch a new or substantially redesigned website on or after December 1, then the Policy does not require you to bring the platform, infrastructure, and underlying code of your website into conformance with WCAG 2.1 AA. However, all website owners who expect to post content on or after December 1 must make an effort to ensure that this content conforms to the WCAG standards.

I’m a Harvard student, faculty, or staff member and need assistance accessing online content. Where do I go?

Harvard remains deeply committed to members of its academic community with disabilities. This Policy does not supersede existing University processes for Harvard students, faculty, or staff seeking accommodations or assistance. For more information, please contact University Disability Resources.

Where can I send additional comments or feedback?

We appreciate your thoughts and feedback, which you may submit for review by email to: digitalaccessibility@harvard.edu

Updated April 2019