Eighty-six percent of the nation’s top universities have web sites that don’t 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 Newsreporter’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.” 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 Cal-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. The results, however, are well worth the time and effort. Pages are easier to edit, more backwardly compatible, and leaner”–resulting in faster downloads.

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.

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 expensive.

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.

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, but an extensive renovation of our content-management system, just now entering its last phases, will remedy that shortcoming in the near future.