WPI Study Finds Most Federal Web Sites Are Not Fully Accessible to the Disabled

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. - June 12, 2003 - Most federal Web sites do not meet the government's own accessibility standards for disabled citizens, according to a new study by a team of researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). The WPI research team of Assistant Professor of management Eleanor T. Loiacono, Assistant Professor of management Scott McCoy, and computer science undergraduate William Chin spent seven weeks in January and February analyzing 417 government Web sites to see how they complied with federal guidelines for accessibility in their investigation entitled "Freedom of Access: A Study of Federal Website Accessibility."

The federal government is bound by two federal civil-rights statutes that address the availability of information technology to the nation's approximately 54 million disabled citizens: the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) of 1990, and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1973. The ADA requires that all workers with disabilities be able to access and use the technology needed to conduct their jobs. Section 508 calls for all electronic and information technology purchased by the federal government to be usable by people with disabilities.

The WPI study examined the Web sites of 317 agencies and offices from all three federal branches, as well as those of the 100 largest federal contractors. Each site was analyzed using a software program from Watchfire Corporation called Bobby, which is designed to expose and help repair barriers to Internet accessibility. Bobby tests for compliance with government standards, including those in Section 508.

The study's results indicate that 67 percent of the federal sites do not provide fully accessible sites based on its own Section 508 criteria.

Furthermore, the study compared the 417 Web sites to industry-based standards from the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which was founded in 1996 by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and is funded by a number of government agencies. The WAI guidelines have three priority levels based upon the site's accessibility - 1 signifying the most serious accessibility obstacles, to 3 signifying the least. Using these standards, the study found that only 28 percent met the minimum Priority 1 level checklist. No site was completely free of Priority 2 and 3 access barriers. The most common error to Priority 1 access was the failure to provide alternative text for all images (63 percent of the sites).

"By failing to address accessibility issues, the government is neglecting not only federal law, but also a large number of its citizens and constituents with disabilities," notes Loiacono. "By comparison, the federal accessibility numbers were much better than those for the private sector, but below the levels of institutions of higher education."

Previous research by Loiacono revealed that only 6 percent of corporate Web sites are accessible to people with disabilities. Research studies in 2001 and 1999 showed that 59 percent of college and university Web sites met these standards.

Disabilities present many obstacles to those seeking full access to the Internet and the information and applications it holds. Those requiring Web design modifications include blindness, deafness and various levels of paralysis. Assistive technological devices such as Braille readers for the blind and voice-to-text translators for the deaf have improved life for many disabled people. However, most Web content was designed to only be seen on a monitor, heard via a speaker (audio files like the familiar "You've got mail"), and hand-navigated by the click of a computer mouse. People who do not have the ability to do even one of these tasks are missing a significant portion of the Web's content.

The concept of graceful degradation is a key component to a well-designed, accessible site. It allows devices like screen readers and other adaptive technology supporting the disabled to convey the core content and meaning even if the original site has additional design components. It also provides for multiple options of navigation between and around Web pages. For example, this could be alternate computer code providing verbal descriptions for a blind person accessing Web images of paintings in the National Gallery of Art, or an embedded text transcription contained in a multimedia Internet file of a Presidential speech that a deaf person could access.

Fortunately, according to Scott McCoy, it would only take a small investment for the government to make its Web sites more accessible, and this investment would have the added benefit of saving money in the long run. "Federal agencies and offices could achieve cost savings similar to those realized by banks in offering online banking. Rather than requiring a face-to-face meeting during regular business hours, citizens could simply visit a Web site to access information or submit forms electronically. These e-government functions would be more efficient, and allow citizens who would have a difficult time visiting a local office to obtain needed information and conduct needed transactions."

About Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1865, WPI is a pioneer in technological higher education. WPI was the first university to understand that students learn best when they have the opportunity to apply the knowledge they gain in the classroom to the solution of important problems. Today its students, working in teams at more than 20 project centers around the globe, put their knowledge and skills to work as they complete professional-level work that can have an immediate positive impact on society.

WPI's innovative, globally focused curriculum has been recognized by leaders in industry, government and academia as the model for the technological education of tomorrow. Students emerge from this program as true technological humanists, well rounded, with the confidence, the interpersonal skills and the commitment to innovation they need to make a real difference in their professional and personal lives.

The university awarded its first advanced degree in 1898. Today, its first-rate research laboratories support master's and Ph.D. programs in more than 30 disciplines in engineering, science and the management of technology. Located in the heart of the region's biotechnology and high-technology sectors, WPI has built research programs - including the largest industry/university alliance in North America - that have won it worldwide recognition.