Web Accessibility: Required, Not Optional: Why Everybody's Talking about Accessibility and How to Move toward Compliance

Article excerpt

DID YOU GET THE MEMO b on website accessibility? With the latest legal and regulatory developments, you'd better make sure you did. The time is now for web accessibility in higher education.

Literally. Next month at the EDU-CAUSE annual national conference, web accessibility will get the lion's share of the agenda. No fewer than 11 sessions focus on the topic, including three with Daniel Goldstein, the lead counsel of the National Federation for the Blind (NFB). The following week, the art of accessible websites in higher education will also take center stage at HighEdWeb in Austin, Texas. The opening keynote speaker of this year's conference for web professionals in higher education is Shawn Henry, a recognized web accessibility advocate who leads education and outreach activities for the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Web accessibility might not sound as "sexy" as social media or mobile apps, but it will become a hot topic in the coming months for colleges and universities.

A QUIET PROBLEM

"One of the biggest problems with accessibility is that it tends to be a quiet problem," says Glenda Sims, the HighEdWeb conference chair and a senior accessibility consultant at Deque Systems, Inc. Issues with inaccessible websites are, by nature, invisible to the eyes of the vast majority of web visitors and most web developers. With tighter budgets to manage, emerging technologies to implement, and other "more visible" issues to tackle, many institutions have let web accessibility slip off of their to-do lists and have overlooked for too long their obligation to comply with the laws and regulations in place.

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As findings from a 2008 study conducted by the WAI on behalf of the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE) show, only 3 percent of web pages randomly selected from the websites of 100 institutions were deemed accessible by demonstrating full compliance with the federal standards of Section 508. This poor performance in terms of accessibility looked even more heartbreaking when compared to the conclusions of a similar study done by the NCDAE 10 years earlier. In 1998, like in 2008, 97 percent of the web pages didn't meet the basic web accessibility standards.

Earlier this year, a more comprehensive research study led by John Gunderson, coordinator of assistive communication and information technology accessibility at the University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign, revealed what might be interpreted by some as a brighter picture.

In a paper titled "The Status of Web Accessibility in Higher Education," Gunderson explains, he examines the results of analysis of 23,319 web pages from 180 universities done by the Functional Accessibility Evaluator (FAE), a web tool for checking compliance with a given set of accessibility standards. The actual level of accessibility designed into the websites was estimated via a subset of rules focusing on titles, subheads, forms, data tables, layout tables, and images. More than half, 53.6 percent, of the analyzed web pages complied with this limited set of rules. "ALT text for images, often the poster child for web accessibility, was fully implemented on 62 percent of the pages," said Gunderson.

While 53.6 percent might not sound too bad, on most tests it would be an F. Even more troubling: Beyond this class average, some of the award-winning websites, the A students in other words, have also flunked the web accessibility test.

How can a website failing to comply with several of the most basic standard requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) win a CASE Circle of Excellence Gold Award or be nominated for an eduStyle People's Choice's Award?

Simple. The WCAG 2.0 standards are only one of the many criteria used to evaluate website excellence, an evaluation approach perfectly reflecting the attitude of higher education toward web accessibility. …