PROVO — In the 21st century, navigating a school's website is an essential part of education. But a new study from BYU and Utah State University says certain web issues are alienating the U.S. disabled community.
The study found that more than 95 percent of U.S. K-12 school websites had errors that made the page difficult for a person with a disability to use.
Examples of these issues listed in the study anecdotally include no video transcript or caption options for a hard of hearing student, or text size formatting options for a visually impaired student or parent.
The research comes from WebAIM, a web accessibility consultancy based at the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University.
"Everyone should be able to access content provided by schools and other public entities," said Royce Kimmons, BYU technology assistant professor and lead author of the paper. "This goes for the students who are attending the school, the parents, the communities that pay taxes to keep the school running."
The study is the first of its kind to examine how widespread and prevalent these problems are. It used a randomized sample of schools nationwide, analyzing about 6,000 homepages in total.
To automatically evaluate the accessibility of the websites, the researchers used a WebAIM-developed tool called WAVE that provides an overall automated accessibility score for webpages based on error density and total error and alert counts.
"From this we can get a good sense for how school websites in the U.S. generally are performing according to these standards," Kimmons said.
Some of the most common errors across websites were poor contrast between text and backgrounds, no alternative text to images and other visual elements, and unlabeled form controls.
"Most of them are readily preventable or could be readily addressed with a little awareness and a little bit of effort," said Jared Smith, associate director of WebAIM and co-author of the study.
Website accessibility is a known issue and the researchers said the results were expected.
"Lots of people recognize that this is an issue, lots of people want to address it, but I think we struggle to figure out how to do it in ways that are sustainable and scalable," Kimmons said. "Technology tends to move faster than policy does."
He said that's why the study lists specific resources and tools schools can use to address accessibility, such as training content authors basic techniques to help disabled web users.
However, not all issues are fixed with some training.
"Many of these accessibility issues aren't necessarily due to lack of concern for accessibility but because the tools that are being used — the content management systems — do not support optimal accessibility," Smith explained.
A lot of the problems are extremely technical, Kimmons said, and would require trained and dedicated web personnel — something not many schools can afford. But in the long run, fixing the sites is worth the cost, Smith said.
"For now, the school that hasn't considered this, yeah there's going to be some effort involved to remediate for accessibility," Smith said. "Over time, as schools start doing a better job of this, the costs are going to significantly decrease."
Retroactively fixing a website is more difficult than initially building it with accessibility in mind, he said.
"If you have a website that has not been designed for accessibility, to go back and to try and retrofit and try to fix that can be difficult," he said. "It's really a function of the education and the processes that are put in place through those schools to ensure accessibility and build it in from the get-go as opposed to being just reactionary and fix issues when they're present."
Some problems are simple to fix, according to the research.
"Sitewide changes in colors, for example, might only require changing one line of CSS code but might address contrast issues across hundreds of pages on a site," the paper states. "Similarly, implementation of standards-compliant form templates would allow highly accessible forms in all instances."
Fixing accessibility issues benefits all web users, Smith said.
"If they implement good accessibility for people with disabilities, they're going to end up with a better web product overall," he said.
For example, search engine optimization can improve when a website is accessible, Kimmons pointed out.
Addressing this issue takes more than looking at the technical side. A cultural shift needs to happen, he said.
"It's not something that I think we can address all at once," Kimmons said. "It's more an issue of developing a culture where these things are valued and we are consistently thinking about them and … doing at least these little things we can do to help make our content more accessible."
Smith said schools should view web accessibility the same way they consider physical accessibility to school buildings.
Failure to provide adequate resources could be considered a violation of Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disabilities. There are no outlined guidelines for web content, but the Department of Justice clarified that websites are covered under the ADA and inaccessible sites could be considered discriminatory.
In Utah, there are currently eight pending cases under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights for issues of disability accessibility.
"Most of the issues we identified in our study are pretty significant issues, they probably would align with discrimination because they're so impactful," Smith said. "I don't think it's intentional, I think it's a lack of awareness, lack of tools and maybe lack of resources to put into the area of web accessibility."
Notably, the report shows the problem is universal and persists across a wide array of demographics and poverty levels. Kimmons said while these differences did account for a small level of variation, every school has room for improvement — even the ones who had better resources.
"This is not so much an issue of poor vs. rich or small vs. large schools as it is a problem that each individual school must account for on its own through awareness and remedy," the report states.
The study was published in an open-access research journal, which was an intentional choice, Kimmons said.
"It's really available for anyone in the world to access. We wanted first to make people aware of it — not just other researchers," he said. "And also to provide some concrete guidance and how to begin to address it."
Creating a website with zero accessibility errors is a possible and reasonable standard, Kimmons said.
Another point of the study is to track progress over time, Smith said. These numbers will provide a baseline to gauge where accessibility is at now and provide a comparison in the future.
"We can track changes over time to see if we're getting better or worse over time and hopefully it's better," he said.
There aren't any definitive plans for future K-12 web studies now, Smith said, but initial results for another study out of WebAIM was published last week.
That research analyzed the top 1 million homepages' accessibility and found 97.8 percent had Web Content Accessibility Guidelines errors.