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Website discrimination: how most colleges and universities are falling short.

SINCE THE PASSAGE OF THE AMERICANS with Disabilities Act in 1990, colleges and universities have come a long way in campus accessibility. But recent assessments show they're lagging in one important arena--the web. In March, using HiSoftware's Compliance Sheriff software, Systems Alliance, a technology services firm, ran accessibility scans on the websites of all institutions on the U.S. News & World Report top 25 list and found that none were fully compliant with government standards.

"The technologies used to render websites and make them interactive present ever new challenges to making them accessible," says Mary Ziegler, manager for accessibility and usability services in the Information Services and Technology department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Commonly used technologies include Flash, Ajax, and JavaScript--all of which require special coding for the content to be legible to screen readers used by the blind. At institutions where multiple departments are building websites, she says, it's difficult to have all the developers on the same page and familiar with the standards.

But institutions that aren't taking measures to ensure access for the disabled are violating Section 508 the law governing web accessibility. It's an issue the National Federation for the Blind views as a priority.

"The NFB considers web accessibility to be a very big issue because the internet has come to dominate all aspects of life, including education," says Christopher S. Danielson, director of public relations. "Colleges and universities that have inaccessible websites are violating the law because the technology they use is required to be accessible to all of their students." He points out that these requirements extend to other educational technologies, including e-readers, e-textbooks, and online learning systems.

Recently, the NFB took a shot at higher ed, asking for investigations into institutions that deploy Google Apps for Education for email and collaboration, because those sites do not meet accessibility standards.

Colleges and universities aren't alone when it comes to issues with web accessibility. Ninety percent of the websites of federal government agencies do not comply with government accessibility standards, a study published in July in the journal Government Information Quarterly reports.


Jasmine Tobias, a web accessibility specialist with Systems Alliance, says one way to ensure accessibility is to provide alternate text where images and multimedia content are present on a site. But alternate is not necessarily the way to go. "People with disabilities still want to experience the same content, the same richness on that page as people without disabilities," says Tobias. She recommends understanding and implementing accessibility from the start. "If you know that your site has to be accessible, it is so much easier to incorporate a lot of the techniques during design. If you're trying to make a site accessible post design, it can be very costly and time consuming."
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Title Annotation:BEHIND the NEWS
Author:Domonell, Kristen
Publication:University Business
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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