Accessible Writing Centers

The Online Writing Center, Uncategorized, Writing Centers / Monday, February 7th, 2011

By Sarah Iovan

One of the things we at the UW Madison Writing Center constantly strive for is to be welcoming and accessible to everyone. Our primary service is to University of Wisconsin-Madison students, but we also try to reach out beyond the campus through the Community Writing Assistance Program, our Writing Center Colloquia, and our online presence. Our writer’s handbook, which offers advice about academic writing, forms the core of our online offerings, and I am delighted to say that this morning an extensive remodel of our handbook went live.**

We decided to update the handbook for many reasons: to match the updated look of our workshop listings, to make navigation more transparent, and to increase our visibility on search engines such as Google and Bing. While changes to the overall look of the material are dramatic and helping people find more of our content is important, the changes that I personally take the most satisfaction in are the improvements to standards-compliance and accessibility.

A screenshot from the old handbook
A screenshot of the old handbook
A screenshot of the new handbook
A screenshot of the new handbook

Not only is the new handbook easier to navigate for people using conventional modern browsers, it is also designed for use in older text-based browsers, browsers that do not support Java, and screen readers. These design decisions give our users a greater degree of choice about how to access our content. While we still have work to do–we don’t fully support mobile devices such as smart phones and some areas outside of the handbook still need some work–the new design is a big improvement.

Accessibility (in various senses of the word) is a huge part of what working in a writing center is all about. Our main location in Helen C. White Hall is full of friendly people–receptionists, tutors, and administrative staff alike–committed to creating a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere. Our satellite locations are spread across campus to make it easier for students to meet with us. More important than our commitment to creating convenient and friendly spaces, however, is the more fundamental nature of the work that we do: we work to help make the power of writing available to as many people as possible. The Writing Center is about helping people to write well so that they can access the enormous benefits (both tangible and intangible) that come with the power of written self-expression.

The focus on accessibility in the design of the new handbook, then, is about much more than ensuring that the pages look good across browsers. Accessibility on our web site helps us to make writing a more accessible practice.

**The Handbook offers advice about common genres of academic writing (organizing scientific reports, lit reviews, and annotated bibliographies), improving style, and using common documentation systems (APA, MLA …), and reaches people all over the world. In a typical month, our website has over 2,000,000 hits from over 110,000 unique visitors.