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August 12, 2010, 05:21 PM ET

College Web Pages Are 'Widely Inaccessible' to People With Disabilities

College Web pages remain "widely inaccessible" to people with disabilities, despite some improvements in recent years, according to a recent study.

The study found that more colleges are deploying basic accessibility features, like adding alternative text to images so a blind student can understand them with read-aloud software.

But those gains were offset by challenges from inaccessible emerging technologies. For example, a person with disabilities who can't use a mouse will often be stymied by a Web site that requires users to hover their mouse over a page element to trigger a sub-menu.

And accessibility remains "strikingly low," even in those areas where it is improving, says the study, "Web Accessibility: A Longitudinal Study of College and University Home Pages in the Northwestern U.S."

The National Science Foundation-backed study, which is not available for free online, was published in the journal Disability & Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology. Its conclusions are based on a review of the home pages of 127 colleges in the Northwest between 2004 and 2009.

The report comes as federal authorities are paying increasing attention to colleges' use of inaccessible technology.

"The reality is that we have a long way to go," says Terrill Thompson, a co-author of the study who works as a technology accessibility specialist at the University of Washington.

That applies to Mr. Thompson's institution, too.

He acknowledged that the rotating carousel of news stories on the University of Washington home page (see photo above) was "not really" accessible. As of the last time he checked, it was "very difficult to access with either a screen reader, or just by keyboard alone, if you’re not a mouse user." It's an example, he says, of how accessibility can be "an afterthought" for developers.

"They wanted to make it accessible, and they approached us afterwards and said, 'Hey, we just rolled this out—now we need to make it accessible,'" Mr. Thompson says. "And we reminded them that that's not the best way to do things."

When it comes to one area of improvement—alternate text for images—Mr. Thompson's study found that 41 percent of pages had meaningful alternate text for all images in 2009, up from 27 percent in 2004-05.

But the study found a "significant decrease" in accessibility for keyboard users who need to access links, buttons, and controls without a mouse. In 2009, 65 percent of pages were fully keyboard accessible, down from 78 percent in 2004-05.


1. fergbutt - August 12, 2010 at 06:55 pm

And how many colleges put out Braille editions of their undergraduate catalogs years ago?

2. gselfr - August 12, 2010 at 07:01 pm

I know they have textbooks/course readers they produce in Braille for students. I would not be suprirsed if they did the same for course catalogs.

3. pburke - August 12, 2010 at 08:03 pm

One of the major costs in producing braille is the staff time required to correct poorly formatted source material.

If web-based materials are designed accessibly, it is much more likely that they can be converted quickly into braille, as well as many other formats. Also, students who are blind or have other disabilities will have an easier time reading the web content directly with adaptive technology.

4. mbelvadi - August 13, 2010 at 06:45 am

Web sites that require hovering with a mouse (aka "mouseover") aren't just making themselves inaccessible to people with certain disabilities, but also to the large and growing population who are using a touchscreen-based device like an iPad. There is no "hovering" on an iPad.

As we have found with the physical world, designers may discover that designing web sites to accommodate disabilities results in sites that are more usable for everyone else too.

5. kmcgovern - August 13, 2010 at 07:13 am


You might want to share this with our IT staff. How does our Website score on accessability?


6. profshelly - August 13, 2010 at 08:02 am


Anyone can become disabled. Remember, it is the one minority group in the US that, at any moment, any of us might join. It is important for each of us to consider these issues, and those that occur every day in the non-technology world as well.

Just try walking the sidewalks around your campus with a baby stroller and you will see the impossibility of negotiating many of our campuses in a wheelchair, look at the bathrooms and try to imagine turning on the faucet, getting soap and paper towels, etc. Sure, the "stalls" might be accessible (or built that way, but are now blocked with a trashcan), but everything else has to be that way too.

Are we truly inclusive in our campus, virtual or not? Most of the time the answer is "no." People then say, "Well, we don't have that many disabled students anywyay." But the reason you may not have those students is because your campus isn't accessible!

Wake up before you need the very services that you think are not necessary.


7. csgirl - August 13, 2010 at 08:09 am

Most of these websites are difficult for everyone to use. Cluttered, busy sites filled with story carousels and mouseover effects make it very hard for people, whether sighted or not, to find the information they need. I think university websites are some of the worst offenders out there when it comes to good design.

8. markgr - August 13, 2010 at 08:42 am

I have been involved with web accessibility in higher education for almost 15 years. My favorite quote on the subject comes from a legally blind, world class athlete I know who says "we are all temporarily abled". Food for thought.

9. cmmoore1 - August 13, 2010 at 09:17 am

I would say that most college and university web sites are challenging when it comes to looking up anything - and not just for "disbaled" people but also for "abled" people as well - thus making us all"disabled when it comes to looking up information. No one has an easy web site out there to look up infomation unless you are really familiar with the site to begin with.

10. marywatkins - August 13, 2010 at 09:57 am

A free resource available from WGBH's National Center for Accessible Media to enable schools to make Web-based media accessible...

Accessible Digital Media Guidelines

11. jabberwocky12 - August 13, 2010 at 10:23 am

Shameful. But perhaps as shameful is this line: "The National Science Foundation-backed study, which is not available for free online, was published in the journal Disability & Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology."

So, a study on accessibility, funded by taxpayers, is not made accessible to everyone. In fact, 24 hours of access to this 7-page article will cost you U$50. Mmm, nice going, guys, nice going.

12. 11186108 - August 13, 2010 at 10:32 am

What a wonderful group of comments! I'd particularly like to emphasize that designing a web site for accessibility is *much* easier and less expensive than retrofitting for accessibility. (Also, since I got involved in this area, I've referred to myself as a TAP - temporarily abled person. I'm glad to see that I'm not alone in this thought.)

13. drjeff - August 13, 2010 at 01:17 pm

I think there was a similar discussion on Chronicle.com maybe a month ago. So, you're not experiencing Deja Vu if you think you already saw this comment:

The major problem is that everyone seems to feel that they have to compete in the "flashy, sexy" category with other websites. And approximately ALL of the technologies that make a site "flashy sexy" make things harder or impossible for a person with disabilities to use the website.

I design websites now, and I'm trying hard to think of an exception, and I can't.

The people paying for the site almost never "buy" an argument that you want to make some part of it less "cool" to allow people with disabilities to use it. It might even be worse in adademia than it was when I was in industry; there, everyone knew people with disabilities (I had one working for me), and they knew their money was green, and that they are exceptionally loyal consumers when they find a vendor who is sensitive to their difficulties. In adademia, it's generally treated more (if it's treaed at all) as a requirement to be satisfied if it can't be avoided, a hurdle to be jumped, or simply as an annoyance.

At least, for the sites I build, at least I make sure that it can still be used with Javascript turned off. (The moving parts stop moving, pretty much.) That generally makes the site dramatically more accessible. It is, however, a lot of work to do it, and the people paying for the site don't usually appreciate the necessity of doing it (i.e., I "get" to do it after my "regular" work is done).

I hate to say it, but this might be an area where a regulation might do more good than harm. (Yes, I realize, only if it were well-written, and most regs are not: that's why I said "might." I realize full well that the vast majority or laws and regs cause undesirable side-effects that vastly outnumber the desired effect.)

But as long as the vast majority of the people TWD (temporarily without disabilities) remain so thoroughly clueless in this area, and they're the ones paying the bills, regulation might be the only way to improve the situation.

14. drjeff - August 13, 2010 at 01:23 pm

P.S. Correction: I mostly build sites from other people's designs. Sorry for the error.

15. terrillthompson - August 13, 2010 at 02:16 pm

Great comments here, folks!

As co-author of the research describe in this article, I'd especially like to address your comment @jabberwocky12 about publicly-funded scientific research being *inaccessible*. I share your beef: I'd love to be able to simply share a URL pointing to a free, fully-accessible web page where you can access our research results. Unfortunately we're expected to publish in credible, peer-reviewed academic journals, and the majority of those are expensive, perhaps necessarily so as they need to cover their publishing costs.

That said, there is a movement afoot to address this problem, including relevant bills currently before congress. You can stay abreast of this movement, and get involved, through the Alliance for Taxpaper Access: http://www.taxpayeraccess.org

16. jarendt - August 13, 2010 at 03:13 pm

To terrillthompson:
Please also remember to post a copy of your article in your university's institutional repository, ResearchWorks Archive (https://digital.lib.washington.edu/dspace/), when the embargo from Taylor and Francis expires in 12 or 18 months. The laws don't have to change for you to make your research more available.

17. dank48 - August 13, 2010 at 04:56 pm

Yes, as others have mentioned, there's more than a touch of "the shoemaker's children go barefoot" about accessibility. It's not unusual for some company to sponsor closed captioning for a television program, then they run a commercial, and it's not captioned.

As has been pointed out above, the key is to go for accessibility from the outset. In the case of captions, it finally dawned on everyone that it's more efficient to format the program's script than to sit and listen to the dialog.

"Temporarily Abled" is a wonderful descriptor, especially because it's true. All we have to do is live long enough . . .

18. danburkemt - August 13, 2010 at 07:08 pm

First, and obviously, there were not federal and state laws requiring Braille college catalogues. Accessibility was required after a certain point, but that requirement could easily be met with a reader ... paid for by the university or college. But Braille is off-topic for the most part in this discussion.

Second, and also obviously, the types and amounts of information on web sites at universities has increased profoundly while its shelf-life has decreased proportionately. A reader for a blind student (orstaff member like me) simply isn't viable. And that's not quite on-topic yet either.

Third, we haven't got the right to snub the idea of building a new stadium, science building or even a coffee shop on our campuses that aren't in complete compliance with access standards, and we have exactly the same responsibilities in the new "built" virtual environment. And all the more so as that virtual environment becomes the the dominant learning, economic and social environment.

And finally, it is not reasonable to argue that we might put our institutions at risk by ignoring compliance requirements and failing to vigorously pursue an accessible and usable online learning environment.

19. jabberwocky12 - August 14, 2010 at 12:42 am

@terrillthompson I agree somewhat that "the majority of [credible, peer-reviewed academic journals] are expensive," but this is only a partial justification. There are alternatives:

- while the majority of credible, peer-reviewed academic journals are subscription, there are many, many that are open access. It may be a hassle to find them, but, in this case, the hassle would have been appreciated, and understandable.

- even many subscription journals allow individual articles to be open-access. The pressure for this usually comes from the donors via the authors. Especially if the donor is a government organization. If you have to pay a fee, then these fees can be raised in your grant proposal, and may even be covered there. Again, the hassle is to find these journals, and to ask. Again, it's a hassle that would have been worth it.

Because, let's face it, although waiting for the 12-18 month embargo to pass is something, in 12-18 months' time, the research will be old, and its value will have been seriously diminished.

Ah, well, perhaps next time.

20. texasmusic - August 14, 2010 at 05:51 pm

Okay 1) please remove the ad that is comment #20 from leilei008. And

2) I really agree with much of drjeff's comments. I spent about half my adulthood working with the disabled, and now that I'm not working with them anymore, I still notice when things are accessible (and not just for the blind or those who use wheelchairs). But when I try to point this out to our web designers, no one cares. No effort whatsoever is made to improve our site design. Those who design it only care about using the latest technology and making it look sexier than everyone else's sites. I'm tired of getting the shoulder-shrug every time I make a suggestion that would make our site more accessible to those who have limitations. But unfortunately, my pay grade isn't such that I have a lot of pull in this area. So I keep trying...and being ignored.

21. ebarkas - August 15, 2010 at 02:02 pm

I recently began research on this very topic and have been disappointed with the findings in previous research. As I have spent over a year conducting a literature review, I have noticed that soon after the Rehabilitation Act Section 508 was to be fully implemented (2001) there was misunderstanding as to whether or not higher education was to adhere to this. Somewhere after 2005 it appears that the consensus became that is was good practice, yet the results of studies have not shown significant improvements.

Last month, the DOJ gave an advanced notice that they would be addressing the potential need to include information technology standards in regards to the Americans with Disabilities Act. (A topic mentioned on this site.) I am personally hopeful that this will result in quick Web accessibility advances in higher education and beyond, as it will eliminate any current confusion about who should be creating accessible Web sites.

Also, I have read the initial findings from the cited study and am frustrated by the difficulty I am having getting a full version of this article. Currently, I am hoping by mid-week the research library will be able to provide me with a pdf version.

22. maxbini - August 15, 2010 at 08:46 pm

I have to say the quality of the comments and the understanding they display of the importance of universal design are exemplary (too often on The Chronicle have such discussions degenerated into what amounts to a blame the disabled for not allowing technological advancements).
The truth is that it is easier to access information when websites are well designed and structured. Flash and animations just get in the way.
Three other issues to consider are accessing Library catalogues, Course Management software such as Blackboard and the widespread use of locked pdf documents by academics.

23. emmadw - August 16, 2010 at 05:52 am

I agree with most of the comments above (though not all, as i'm not trying to sell anything!)

I think the point about mobile version of sites is also critical - increasing numbers of users are now trying to use a handheld device to access websites - the more gizmos (& flash, if said handheld is an i-anything!) - the more difficult it is to use.

The other group of users, that, certainly in my University vastly outnumbers any other group, are dyslexic users - who may have very differing needs to those who have visual/physical disabilities -and, are, I feel often neglected. (Possibly because for many dsylexic students, using minimal text is good - and putting as much information as possible into audio/visual material really helps ... but then people worry about having to transcribe it for those that can't see/hear it ...

As others have said, the more website designers think about the users and what they're wanting from the University sites, which, ultimately, is information, not entertainment - the more sites should meet the needs of *all* users, not just some.

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