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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.

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