Implementation of Web Accessibility Standards on Higher Education Websites

Team: Alberto Guzman, Shawn Dimpfl, Fabricio Balcazar

Role: Automatic and Manual HTML accessibility checker, data collection and analysis, literature review, Co-authored book chapter

Tools and Methods: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), Automatic web accessibility checker, SPSS

Citation and Link to the Book Chapter: Guzman, A., Dimpfl, S., & Balcazar, F.E. (2013).  Accessibility of Higher Education Web Pages for Students with Disabilities. In Wehman, P., & Gary, K.W. (Eds.), Race, Ethnicity, and Disability research: Future endeavors in the field.  Richmond, VA: Virginia Commonwealth University.

Project Overview

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that all public institutions, such as state universities, be accessible to people with disabilities. Due to the growing importance of the internet, online learning, and an ever-widening digital divide, we wanted to see if public university websites were digitally accessible as their campuses are becoming increasingly physically accessible.

There are a number of ways that the overall design and underlying code of a University’s website can act as a barrier to individuals with disabilities. Many of these barriers are easily avoidable and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international community that develops open standards to ensure the long-term growth of the Web, has developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to help web designers eliminate these barriers. Watch the video below for a quick intro to web accessibility.

Research Questions:

  1. Are University homepages and disability service pages accessible?
  2. Are complex navigation movements required to reach the disability services page from the University’s homepage?


Fifty public university homepages (one from each state) and their corresponding disability services web pages were tested for accessibility (total 97) using the automatic tool WebXact, manual inspections with a screen reader and visual inspections. Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 6.58.16 PM.png

The 97 web pages were checked one at a time and simultaneously by the research team using W3C WCAG – AAA Compliance for 10 types of errors that had both automatic and manual checks. After running the automatic checks, I would conduct visual manual checks of the page and inspect the source code while Alberto checked the site with a screen reader program. 

These manual checks were necessary because the depth of the automatic checks was limited. For instance, when WebXACT tests a page for a 1.1 guideline error (Provide a text equivalent for every non-text element) it simply looks to make sure that every photograph, graphic, image, etc. is associated with what is called “alt tag,” which gives a non-text element a label.

Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 6.53.55 PM.pngAs you can see the third picture is mislabeled and should say “two cats climbing” instead of “two silly dogs.” The automatic check passes because there is an alt tag label present but the manual check will tell you this is an erroneous label and is not accessible. 


We found in both the automatic checks using WebXact and our manual checks that errors existed at all levels (A, AA, AAA) on both university home pages and disability services pages. There were a total of 158 errors found on the University’s homepage and 131 errors on the disability office pages. 

Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 7.45.26 PM

The most common error found on homepages was a failure to provide a text equivalent for every non-text element, 66% of all home pages had this error and it made up 21% of all the errors found on the homepages.

On university disability services pages, the most common error was a failure to identify the primary natural language of a document, for example, English.  53% of the disability pages had such errors and they made up 20% of the errors found.

In addition, we manually looked for direct links to the disability services office. For instance, could a user navigate from the university’s homepage the university’s office of disabilities services page? 45 out of the 50 universities studied had no such direct link. Navigating their sitemaps we found 31 disability offices listed. Finally, the university search engines were tested with the most success.  41 universities returned positive results, 8 returned no results and one university home page had no search engine.


Findings illustrated that both sets of pages continue to include inaccessible features many of which can be easily resolved and without compromising the main structure or context of the web page. Furthermore, the results showed the importance of conducting manual checks in addition to automatic checks that are insufficient alone to uncover all of the inaccessible aspects of a given web page. 

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” — Tim Berners-Lee W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

More accurate and efficient methods for evaluating the accessibility of websites are critical to assuring that we have an accurate measure of web accessibility in higher education. By developing comprehensive policies about web accessibility, institutions can ensure that all members of the institution community have access to information on their websites. Policy may develop in response to advocacy by individuals on campus, administrative leadership, state laws, or in settlements over legal action.