Campus & Community

Making Web access a reality

4 min read

Seeking to make online information open to everyone, Harvard has embarked on a program to make Web sites accessible to the visually impaired.

This week, Provost Harvey V. Fineberg alerted Harvard’s Deans of the initiative and of workshops being set up over the next few months for web managers at the different schools. Fineberg asked that each school circulate news of the initiative among faculty and staff who may maintain their own Web pages and review the school’s major Web sites to ensure they become accessible in the “near term.”

“For members of our community who have visual impairments, mobility impairments, or other disabilities, the design and workings of some Web sites make it difficult to take advantage of these valuable resources. In most cases, making some minor modifications to design will open these Web sites to all,” Fineberg said in last week’s letter to the Deans.

Three workshops, with room for 20 in each, have been set up so far: on June 28, July 18, and Aug. 15, from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. More will be scheduled to accommodate demand.

A recent audit of Web pages at Harvard showed that more than half are not completely readable by special equipment employed by the blind and visually impaired, according to Assistant Provost for Planning and Policy Sarah Wald, who chairs the disability services advisory committee that is spearheading the accessibility effort.

“We are seeing exciting new uses of technology in all kinds of settings at Harvard,” Wald said. “It is being used increasingly in the classroom and to communicate a wide variety of information. It seems a good time to increase awareness of how important it is that these new ways of communicating be accessible to everyone in the community.”

The reading equipment reads the text of Web pages aloud, but as pages in recent years have employed more and more graphics, some page designers have neglected to create readable descriptions of the images on the pages, leaving the reader to simply describe the type of image file.

While that may be an annoyance when the image is a photo accompanying a text article, it becomes a true block to accessibility when the image is a button bar or a highlighted text containing a link to another Web page.

“We’re talking about the essential ability to navigate,” said Elaine Benfatto, Harvard University Webmaster. “It’s appalling how many people don’t name their images. All the careful planning they put into a navigation screen is meaningless to a visually impaired person using a screen reader.”

The good news is that about half of Harvard’s roughly 900 Web sites are already accessible to screen readers. Another quarter of them can be made accessible with relatively simple fixes that include labeling images, buttons, arrows, links, and other items necessary to navigate successfully.

The rest of the pages have a bit more work to do, but Benfatto and Wald said they hope to see most if not all of Harvard’s Web sites accessible to screen readers by the end of the next academic year. Their work is increasingly important, as more and more course material is put up on the Web.

“This is critical, when a blind student can’t get course assignments or a syllabus,” Benfatto said.

According to the feedback she’s received so far, Harvard’s Webmasters are eager to get to work, Benfatto said. She’s received no resistance, and most of the calls have been from Webmasters looking for standards that they can employ in designing their pages.

“We’re not forcing this on Webmasters so much as putting together standards we all can use,” Benfatto said.

More information on the new accessibility standards is available at To register for a workshop, contact Suzanne Eaton in FAD Training at