Eighty-six percent of the nation’s top universities have web sites that do not comply with standards designed to make the internet more accessible to persons with disabilities, according to a recent survey.

Conducted in June by Hannon Hill Corp., a maker of web content-management solutions, the study examined the web sites of the top 124 universities in the United States, as ranked in U.S. News and World Report’s annual account. Of these 124 schools, only 17 were found to have web sites that comply with the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C’s) accessibility standards.

Those not passing had an average of 45 errors each on their home pages, Hannon Hill said. Each error indicates a standard was not followed.

W3C’s guidelines are widely regarded as the industry standard for web accessibility. They are meant to give persons with disabilities unfettered access to web sites.

People who are visually impaired must rely on electronic screen readers to read web pages to them, explained David Cummings, chief executive officer of Hannon Hill. Those with severe myopia might use screen magnifiers or text-enlarging browser settings. Color-blind individuals will miss the nuances communicated by color and must look for other indicators that convey the same meaning, while people whose motor skills are impaired generally rely on keyboard shortcuts for navigation.

These individuals all must rely on assistive technology to help them navigate the web and find the information they need–and how a web page is coded can have a significant impact on this process.

“By upholding W3C web-site standards, colleges take the same approach to making a web site accessible as they would to making physical walkways and structures accessible to persons with disabilities,” said Cummings, whose company has a financial incentive in publishing the survey results: It sells a product, called the Cascade Server, that provides an automatic checker to ensure that all web content managed with the solution is standards-compliant.

The list of schools whose web sites reportedly fall short of W3C standards includes some of the top liberal-arts and technical schools in the nation, such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Northwestern, Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, and California Institute of Technology.

Of the schools whose web sites failed Hannon Hill’s accessibility test, only the University of Vermont responded to an eSchool News reporter’s questions before press time.

“While I can’t say we are where we’d like to be across the board, we do excel in many areas and go beyond what many ‘automated’ validation software packages can verify,” said the school’s Tatjana Salcedo. “We … strive to improve in these areas and will continue to do so in each successive generation of web technology we implement.”

Salcedo added: “I do applaud Hannon Hill for addressing this issue so directly, but I am a little dubious of any study that bases its results on such limited criteria as an automated test. If you speak with the people at the W3C, … the true intentions of the standards are much more meaningful than meeting simple technical criteria.”

One of the few schools to pass the test was the University of California, Davis. “We set [accessibility] as a major goal of the last redesign of the campus home pages,” said UC Davis’ webmaster, Craig Farris.

“This takes a bit more effort and involves a [near-] complete rewrite of the HTML of all the pages to completely separate content from presentation,” Farris explained. “The results, however, are well worth the time and effort. Pages are easier to edit, more backwardly compatible, and leaner”–resulting in faster downloads.

While the W3C standards include a number of different guidelines for being accessible, Hannon Hill chose to focus on the language used to encode and create the home pages of each web site. This was done by inputting each home page’s URL into an online evaluation tool to determine if the site’s language complied with the accessibility standards. The W3C standards call for a certain language, or doctype, which will allow the accessibility to occur.

Without a specific doctype or root element, a web site is unable to properly display or run programs for those who are disabled. An example is that of a blind individual who needs the use of a screen reader, a device that reads the text and photos on the screen. With the accessibility standards in place, once the screen reader comes to a photo, it will read a description of the picture that has been imbedded on the page by the webmaster. Without the proper coding, on the other hand, the individual will simply hear the word “jpeg” or “image.”

Although the accessibility standards are not mandatory, all of W3C’s guidelines are recognized as being the “gold standard” in the online community, said Marty Blair, policy director for the National Center on Disability and Access to Education.

“This looks horrible. The problem is we’ve got 124 colleges and universities tested, and that’s only a small fraction of those who are out there,” Blair said.

The shortage of schools meeting the W3C guidelines for accessibility is a problem that will not change until schools are held financially accountable for making their web sites fully accessible to students with disabilities, said Blair, who added: “There may be schools and institutions of higher education that, out of the goodness of their heart, require their faculty and staff to develop web sites that are accessible–but much of what is put on sites … is put up by faculty across campus.”

Much of the problem stems from individually created pages on school web sites, but money is also an issue. To go back and retrofit an entire web site to adhere to the W3C standards is an expensive venture.

Currently, no laws require a school’s web sites to comply with the W3C accessibility standards. Though some people cite Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act–which states that federal agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public equal access to their electronic and information technology–that provision applies only to government agencies or products and services purchased and used by the federal government.

But schools might have another incentive to make their web sites accessible, Cummings said.

“Conveniently, many of the techniques that make a web site easier to access for assistive technologies are the same techniques that make it more attractive to search engines, and therefore improve a site’s rating,” he said.

Editor’s Note: eSchool News’ own web site is currently out of compliance with the W3C accessibility standards as well, but an extensive renovation of eSN’s content-management system, just now entering its last phases, will remedy that shortcoming in the near future.

Links:

Hannon Hill Corp.
http://www.hannonhill.com

W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative
http://www.w3.org/WAI

National Center on Disability and Access to Education
http://www.ncdae.org/index.cfm