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NCDAE: The National Center on Disability and Access to Education

Leading the Charge: Ensuring Your Institution’s Web Presence Works for Everyone

Leading the Charge: Ensuring Your Institution’s Web Presence Works for Everyone

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Web Accessibility:

“Web accessibility refers to the practice of making websites usable by people of all abilities and disabilitiesa.”

Students, staff, faculty, and alumni alike use the institutional web for everything from online teaching and learning to critical administrative functions. In 2009, almost 12 million students took some or all of their classes online and this growth is exponential, with estimates of over 22 million by 20141. Online course components are used by both distance education and traditional campus-based courses, making the number of students using the web significantly higher. In addition, roughly four of every five faculty and staff members are online2, engaged in critical functions for their employers. However, for the 8.5% of the U.S. population that have at least one disability that impacts computer and internet use3, inaccessible websites can inhibit or severely restrict their participation in postsecondary settings. While modern assistive technologies and digital media can provide unprecedented access to information and services for students, faculty, and staff with disabilities, equal participation assumes equal access. When websites are not accessible to those with disabilities, the potential for this participation is lost.

6.7%–Graduate Students

Percentage of students who reported some form of disability.b

Increased awareness of the need for accessible websites alone has yet to make the necessary changes in postsecondary education. Studies over a 10-year period consistently reveal that, despite awareness campaigns and a plethora of available resources, the accessibility of web content in education remains a problem4. A 2008 study that examined the accessibility of postsecondary education web pages found that 97% of the institutions in its nationwide sample contained accessibility issues5.

Who can use your institution’s website?

Those who:

  • Are blind
  • Have low vision
  • Are deaf
  • Are hard of hearing
  • Are unable to use a mouse or keyboard
  • Have learning disabilities

This represents a potential user base in the US of over 23.2 million.c

It is an unfortunate reality that web accessibility is not happening on its own. Administrative leadership is needed to promote and ensure an accessible web presence. In fact, leadership and support of system-wide accessibility efforts are cited as key elements in enterprise-wide transformation6. Given the many issues faced by administrators today, why should they care about web accessibility? The answer is simple. Web accessibility:

  • Reflects institutional mission, leadership, & values.
  • Serves ALL constituents.
  • Makes sound fiscal policy.
  • Adds value to every web activity.

Call for Action: Eliminate the digital divide. Ensure that web accessibility is an evaluated part of your institutions comprehensive plans. In doing so, you will see broad benefits.

Web Accessibility Reflects Institutional Mission, Leadership & Values

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An institution’s web presence is a visible manifestation of institutional values. When accessible, it promotes the institution as socially responsible and engaged with the needs of both the campus and broader community. Most importantly, it underscores an institution’s commitment to quality student outcomes, employee productivity, and supports diversity at all levels.

When a leader’s commitment to web accessibility is echoed in the institution’s strategic plan, values become aligned and students and staff members benefit. Strategic planning on web accessibility is also advantageous during the accreditation or reaffirmation process. For example, the standards and criteria of the regional accrediting bodies that represent higher education, underscore issues such as: providing quality education and services to all students, a policy of non-discrimination, a focus on public service, support for lifelong learning, and an emphasis on ethics and integrity7. Any of these items can be referenced during reaffirmation when describing web accessibility efforts.

Mission Statements

While 86% of institutional mission statements contain language supportive of web accessibility in postsecondary educationd, many institutions have yet to incorporate web accessibility into their institutional plan.

Web Accessibility Serves ALL Constituents

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Higher Education Employees

4.9% of employees in Higher Education, training, and library services reported some form of disabilitye.

Student success is a result of policy, planning, and process. A reactive approach to students’ needs creates unnecessary delays when timing is of the essence. Students feel the effects if they are unable to access web-based course materials at the same time as their peers, or if they must wait for after-the-fact accommodation of institutional processes (e.g., registration, financial aid, student employment, housing options). Inaccessible web content affects timeliness, student experience, and student learning, which in turn can affect student outcomes, satisfaction, and persistence. Moreover, in today’s technology rich environment, pedagogical principles such as just-in-time learning, engaged learning, student-centered instruction and other hallmarks of effectiveness in educational service8 are lost if a student must wait for accommodations due to an inaccessible website.

Working with the internet has become an integral part of most academic job descriptions. Faculty and staff in postsecondary settings are expected to be on par with their students who are already digital natives9. Many essential operations including test delivery and course administration are handled through online learning management systems, and critical administrative functions such as financial tracking and student enrollment have largely migrated to an online infrastructure. In order for many faculty and staff to effectively and efficiently perform their jobs, they must be able to work within these programs and access other necessary online information and materials without having to wait for accommodations or rely on others to assist them.

Sachin Dev Pavithran, a student and employee who is blind, comments,

“…inaccessible websites make it difficult for me to do any online research that is associated with my school or job. Having to wait for assistance or materials while my peers have instant access is frustrating and limits my opportunities for participation, which in return could also be an obstacle for me for any advancement at my place of employmentf.”

The utility of the web in recruiting students, faculty, and staff is incontrovertible. Over 65% of college bound students reported that the web was more valuable than print resources in determining the postsecondary institution they wished to attend10. A 2006 Pew internet study found that 42% of Americans said that the internet played a major role as they decided on a college for themselves or their children, and 14% said that the internet played a major role as they switched jobs11. Given the significance of an institution’s website in the recruitment of potential students, faculty, and staff, a website that exhibits an understanding and concern for the needs of its students and employees with disabilities is more likely to attract and retain those it wishes to recruit. An accessible web presence underscores an institution’s commitment to diversity and can aid in efforts to achieve and retain a diverse student population and workforce. Retention is especially critical when you consider that the estimated cost for recruiting a single student to a 4-year institution ranges from $400 - $2,00012!

Fundraising and the Web g

  • Online donations increased 37% between 2005 and 2006.
  • Online donors tend to be more generous.
  • Over 65% of donors use the internet as a resource before donating.

The institutional website helps to build and maintain relationships with the local community and alumni who look to it for information on institutional activities, academic programs, or even sporting events. Moreover, college websites are proving to be an important fundraising and development tool. A CASE (Council for the Advancement and Support of Education) survey reported that $4.8 million dollars were raised online by the 100 schools responding to its survey13. The need for accessible websites is becoming even more apparent as baby-boomers, and an increasing number of alumni, approach retirement. Ensuring an accessible website may be crucial to development efforts since aging populations do experience disability or diminished function14 at a higher rate than younger people.

Web Accessibility Makes Sound Fiscal Policy

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As postsecondary institutions face repeated economic challenges, finding ways to improve efficiency and reduce costs while maintaining quality is essential. Too often accommodations for inaccessible web content are made after-the-fact when the student or faculty requests them. Although this may meet the legal requirements (i.e., to supply reasonable accommodations for students under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and for employees and other community members under the Americans with Disabilities Act), it can lead to an inefficient use of limited resources. This inefficiency is similar to retrofitting a house after it is built. It costs much more in the long run. When web content is created once, rather than recreated or repurposed to provide access to some, it will cost less to do so.

Contents of a DOE Resolution Letter

“If guidelines to ensure access are made available to colleges now, such information on how to structure distance learning programs and campus web pages will not only ensure that colleges meet their legal obligations but will also enable colleges to save significant expense over the later cost of ‘retrofitting’ these programs after substantial investment has been made in inaccessible structuresh.”

Moreover, when an institution relies on after-the-fact fixes and accommodations, it can lead to an inequitable situation for those with disabilities. Often these accommodations take time and those with disabilities must rely on the work schedule and load of others while their peers can access necessary information at any time. This leads to significant disadvantages for students and staff and is increasingly a focus of legal complaints15. Courts have consistently found in favor of plaintiffs when the issues affect16:

  • Timeliness: Is the material ready when the student or employee needs it?
  • Effective communication: Are the materials as effective in conveying the same information—including web content containing hyperlinks?

Public Obligation

“A public entity violates its obligations under the ADA when it only responds on an ad-hoc basis to individual requests for accommodation. There is an affirmative duty to develop a comprehensive policy in advance of any request for auxiliary aids or servicesi.”

Complaints and litigation can be expensive for any institution. The United States has many protections in place to ensure that persons with disabilities receive equal treatment under the law. The Department of Justice recently clarified that the web is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)17. Students, staff, and faculty with disabilities are more informed than ever regarding these laws and their civil rights. Activists and advocate groups are effective in securing equal participation in higher education. An institution with an inaccessible web presence is in danger of becoming the target of a complaint or lawsuit that, regardless of the outcome, could result in negative publicity and costs to the institution. While an enterprise-wide commitment to web accessibility does not guarantee protection from complaints or suits, an active and enforced policy demonstrates good faith and can help mitigate the effects.

White House Warning

It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students”j

Current web standards recommend that accessible content is integrated into web design from the outset18. Accessible websites provide better value for students, faculty, and staff with disabilities. They are also more efficient, allowing those tasked with providing accommodations to focus on special needs rather than having to spend time and limited resources on fixes that could easily have been incorporated in the initial development. Accessible design does not need to affect the quality or the look and feel of an institutional website or that of its programs.

Increased Return On Investment

After improving site accessibility, a UK financial company, Legal & General Group, noted:

  • Search Engine Referrals increased 28% in the first 24 hours.
  • Site mainitaince costs decreased by 66%.
  • A 100% return on investment was seen in 12 months.k

Requirements for digital accessibility are now starting to appear in grants and contracts funded by many sources, including the U.S. federal government, many state and international governments, and private foundations. It is important that an institution be equipped to address new requirements in proposal narratives. If the accessibility of web content and resulting digital products from research are not addressed, institutions may lose points during the review process, thereby losing a competitive edge. Of course, failure to acknowledge stipulations in existing grants could result in a violation of the terms of an already awarded contract.

One growing mechanism to fight increasing budget challenges is the educational collaborative. Many institutions have embraced coordinated efforts as a way to stretch limited resources. Faculty sharing and course delivery arrangements are now part of most regional educational collaboratives19. They provide a venue to disseminate and administer courses across their member institutions. As institutions within these collaborates adopt policies that mandate web accessibility to specified standards, those institutions that do not meet these criteria may find their collaboration opportunities limited.

Does your campus want to compete globally? If so web accessibility will be required.

Currently 149 countries are signatory states to the the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (103 have ratified). In it are stipulations for web accessibilityl.

The demand for web accessibility extends beyond the borders of the United States. Many countries including the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Japan, and the European Union have regulations requiring web accessibility for content used within their borders–even if the content is created and housed elsewhere. If an institution wishes to compete and collaborate in an increasingly global market, it will need to ensure that its web content meets the accessibility standards of other countries20.

Web Accessibility Adds Value

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Mobile Web

73% of Americans ages 18-29 use their mobile phones or PDAs for non-voice data activities on a daily basis.m

Accessible web content offers benefits beyond students and employees with disabilities. In the physical world, curb cuts–the breaks in sidewalks that allow wheelchair access–are also useful for parents with strollers, people with carts, skateboarders, cyclists, and many others21. In a virtual environment, accessibility features are useful for many groups as well. For example, captioning web-based video content provides multi-modal support for different learning styles and helps index content so it can be searched. Moreover, captioned media can be used by those in noisy environments, by those without computer speakers or headphones, or in situations when sound and noise is prohibited such as in a library or lab. Finally, it can be used by students for whom English is a second language as a tool to improve both understanding of the content and overall language skills22.

Google: A User Who is Blind

“…the biggest blind user on the Internet is named Google. This good coding makes you Google friendly. And by Google friendly, I mean every search engine on the planetn.”

Accessible web pages can promote technology innovation on campus. Accessible content:

  • Generally loads more quickly in browsers.
  • Requires less bandwidth.
  • Is easier to maintain and update.
  • Tends to have a higher return in prominent search engines (e.g., Google)23; thus the resources required for search engine optimization can be reduced.

Furthermore, standards-compliant websites are more likely to be compatible with newer browsers and emerging technologies24. Institutions that desire to offer services and information to net books, mobile phones and other hand-held devices will benefit if their content is already accessible and if they have systems in place to sustain accessibility25.

Meeting the Need

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While it is important to have those on campus who have an individual dedication to web accessibility, far-reaching solutions must be enterprise-wide. The decentralized nature of most institutions can marginalize the work done by individual champions or even departments. Often accessible web content is surrounded by inaccessible content beyond the control of those developing with access in mind. Because the interconnected nature of the web requires that an individual navigate around a site, not a page, the most accessible web page in the world is still inaccessible if a user with disabilities must navigate inaccessible pages to get to it26.

Campus Computing Project

The 2009 Campus Computing Project found that ADA Compliance was among CIO’s top issues confronting online education over the next 2-3 yearso.

Successful implementation of web accessibility requires system level action27. An enterprise-wide commitment to web accessibility can provide value beyond the obvious benefits to students and employees with disabilities. Leaders must help staff understand why enterprise-wide web accessibility is important and provide the resources and motivation to make it happen.

As an informed leader, now is the time to “lead the charge” for enterprise-wide accessibility. Promote and support web accessibility across your institution’s web presence. Ensure that your institution is at the forefront of the coming web accessibility revolution. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

Project GOALS Assists Concerned Leaders

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To assist postsecondary leaders and their staffs in creating and maintaining an accessible web presence, Project GOALS (Gaining Online Accessible Learning through Self-study) has developed a collection of materials and processes specifically tailored to help postsecondary institutions plan for, and achieve, enterprise-wide web accessibility. These materials have culminated in the GOALS Web Accessibility Benchmarking & Planning Tool.

Figure 1

Screenshot of “Where your institution is” under the planning tab in the GOALS Web Accessibility Benchmarking & Planning Tool

This web-based tool consists of a set of institutional indicators and benchmarks that outline best practices. It guides the institution’s appointed team through a process of self-study via a series of questions, which are used to create a snapshot of the institution’s web accessibility. In order to assist the team in creating a customized action plan for improving accessibility, the tool provides resources, generates reports and allows institutions to compare the results of their current cycle of assessment with previous ones–or even other institutions. If you would like to learn more about the Web Accessibility & Planning Tool or any of the GOALS materials, visit

Figure 2

Screenshot of “Where your institution needs to be” under the planning tab in the GOALS Web Accessibility Benchmarking & Planning Tool


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2.  Daily Fix (2007, November 6). Four in five adults go online – Usage users profiled. Retrieved

3.  Waldrop, J., Stern, S. (2003) Disability Status: 2000. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved from

4.  Rowland, C., & Smith, T. (1999). Website Accessibility. The Power of Independence (Summer Edition), 1-2. Outreach Division, Center for Persons with Disabilities: Utah State University

     Judd, D., & Walden, B. (2004). Summative Evaluation of Project WebAIM: Four years of project operation. Unpublished manuscript, Utah State University; Logan UT.

     NCDAE (2008, April). Project GOALS evaluates 100 pages in higher education for accessibility against section 508 standard, NCDAE Newsletter. Retrieved

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5.  NCDAE (2008, April). Project GOALS evaluates 100 pages in higher education for accessibility against section 508 standard, NCDAE Newsletter. Retrieved

6.  Rabuzzi, D., Carson, R., & Conklin, K.D. (2001). Issue brief: Postsecondary education reform in Kentucky, NGA Center for Best Practices. Retrieved

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8.  King, K.P., & Griggs, J.K (2006). Harnessing Innovative Technology in Higher Education: Access, equity, policy, and instruction. Retrieved

9.  Howell, S.L., Williams, P.B., Lindsay, N.K. (2003) Thirty-two Trends Affecting Distance Education: An Informed Foundation for Strategic Planning. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 63 (4). Retrieved

10. Irwin, M.M. & Gerke, J.D. (2004). Web-based information and prospective students with disabilities: A study of liberal arts colleges. Educause Quarterly,4, 51-59.

11. Horrigan, J., & Rainie, L. (2006). The Internet’s growing role in life’s major moments. Per Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved

12. Noel-Levitz (2006). Cost of recruiting report: Summary of findings for two-year and four-year institutions. Noel-Levitz. Retrieved from

13. Online Giving Research (2008). University of Virginia. Retrieved

14. Slatin, J. M., & Rush, S. (2003). The business case for accessibility. Maximum Accessibility. Addison-Wesley: New York.

15. Qualters, S. (2009). Blind law student sues law school admissions council over accessibility. The National Law Journal. Retrieved from

     National Federation of the Blind. (2010). Penn State discriminates against blind students and faculty. Retrieved from

     National Federation of the Blind. (2011). Adoption of Google apps program discriminates against the blind. Retrieved from

     National Federation of the Blind. (2009). National Federation of the Blind and American Council of the Blind file discrimination suit against Arizona State University. Retrieved from

     Department of Justice. (2010). Justice Department reaches three settlements under the Americans with Disabilities Act regarding the use of electronic book readers. Retrieved from

16. Waddell, C.D. (2007). Accessible Electronic and Information Technology: Legal obligations of higher education and Section 508. Athen, 1(2). Retrieved

      Rowland, C. (January, 2006). Online learning with students, staff, and faculty with disabilities: Knowing the legal landscape. Invited Webcast for Academic Impressions. Available through

17. Bagenstos, S.R. (2010). Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Samuel R. Bagenstos testifies before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties. Retrieved from

     Department of Justice. (2010). Justice Department reaches three settlements under the Americans with Disabilities Act regarding the use of electronic book readers. Retrieved from

18. Web Accessibility Initiative (2008). Web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. Retrieved

19. See and

20. Sanford University Accessibility Program (2006). Online Accessibility and International Collaboration. Retrieved

      World Wide Web Consortium (2008). Web Accessibility Initiative: Policies Relating to Web Accessibility. Retrieved

      Best, J. (2006). Web accessibility soon mandatory in Europe? CNET news. Retrieved

      Out-Law News (2007). Computer-based exam discriminated against blind candidate. Retrieved

      G3ict (2009). The Convention. Retrieved

21. Slatin, J. M., & Rush, S. (2003). The business case for accessibility. Maximum Accessibility. Addison-Wesley: New York.

22. University of Wisconsion-Madison (2008). Web accessibility – Captioning video with “World Caption” – Free tool. Retrieved

23. Hagans, A. (2005). High accessibility is effective search engine optimization. A List Apart, November 8, 2005. Retrieved

24. Holzschlag, M.E., & Kaiser, S. E. (2002). What are web standards and why should I use them? Web Standards Project. Retrieved

25. Henry, S.L. Understanding web accessibility. Retrieved

26. Rowland, C. (2000). Accessibility of the Internet in Postsecondary Education: Meeting the Challenge (Chapter 4). In French, Baker, & Johnson (Eds.) Universal Web Accessibility. San Marcos, TX: Texas Longterm Care Institute Publishers, Southwest Texas State University.

27. Bohman, P. (2004) University Web Accessibility Policies: A Bridge not quite far enough. WebAIM OnTarget (January 2004). Retrieved

      WebAIM (2004). An 8-step model of reform. Retrieved

Bibliography: Sidebars

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a. Wikipedia (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia:

b. United States Government Accountability Office (GAO). (2009). Higher education and disability: Education needs a coordinated approach to improve its assistance to schools in supporting students. (GAO Publication GAO-10-33). Report to the Chairman, Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives [PDF Document]. Retrieved from

    Waldrop, J. & Stern, S.M. (2003). Disability status: 2000. U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, Census Bureau. Retrieved from

    IES (nd). Table 210: Number and percentage of students enrolled in postsecondary institutions, by level, disability status, and selected student characteristics: 2003-04. Digest of education statistics: IES National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

c. Bernstein, R. (2008). Number of Americans with a disability reaches 54.4 million. U.S Census Bureau News. Retrieved from:

d. GOALS (2008). Evaluation of a sample of online institutional mission statements for language supporting web accessibility. Unpublished raw data

e. Smith, F.A. & Clark, D. (2007). Disability and occupation: Data note 13. Institute for Community Inclusion. Retrieved from

f. S. Pavithran, personal communication, December 2, 2009.

g. Kipps, K. (nd). Online giving research. [Word document]. Retrieved from

h. Rosenzweig, S., Scott-Skillman, T., Cepeda, R., Toy, L., Hallberg, K., Campisi, K. & Norton, C. (1998). DOE resolution letter. United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Retrieved from

i. Waddell, C.D. (1998). Applying the ADA to the internet: A web accessibility standard. The International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet. Retrieved from

j. Dale, K. (2010). White House continues its celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Retrieved from

k. Sims, G., Smith, H., & Whiting, J. (October, 2009). Technology and the Senses II. Invited panel presentation to Art Beyond Sight: Multimodal Approaches to Learning, Co-sponsored by Art Education for the Blind & The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York City, NY.

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m. Horrigan, J. (2008). Mobile access to data and information. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from

n. Krozser, K. (2007). Barnes and Noble, Blackberries, and Human Nature. Booksquare. Retrieved from

o. Green, K.C. (2009). Managing Online Education Programs [PDF document]. Retrieved from The Campus Computing Project:


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Project GOALS (Gaining Online Accessible Learning through Self-Study) is an initiative of the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE), an initiative of the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University. Partners in this effort include the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE), the Southern Region Education Board (SREB), Web Accessibility in Mind (WebAIM), and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE).

FIPSE logoThe Project has been made possible by a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education. No official endorsement should be inferred.