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Websites of Nation's Top Elementary Schools Have Major Accessibility Barriers During Coronavirus Crisis

Mar 23, 2020

Automated accessibility testing performed by the Bureau of Internet Accessibility's a11y® analysis platform revealed significant accessibility barriers on the websites of several of the nation's most highly-rated elementary schools. Collectively, almost half (49.71%) of the checkpoints tested failed, suggesting that many people with disabilities likely would be prevented from full and independent access to the websites' resources.

Twelve of the nation's top schools had a sampling of their web pages scanned. Certainly, some proved to be more accessible than others; however, taken as a group, the results show that even among the schools considered to be the best, accessibility remains a challenge.

The school that finished with the best overall score failed 37.93% of checkpoints tested. The worst failed 65.52%.

The evaluation is organized around the same four principles that frame the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, which provide the most universally-accepted standards for achieving digital accessibility. Those guiding principles state that content needs to be Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust (POUR). It was in the Robust category that the schools struggled most, with a combined checkpoint failure total of 91.67%.

By principle, the checkpoint failure rates were:

The most common checkpoint failure across all categories was related to WCAG 2.1 success criterion 1.3.1: Info and Relationships, which says, "Information, structure, and relationships conveyed through presentation can be programmatically determined or are available in text."

Programmatically determined means to be available in a way that user agents, like assistive technologies, can understand and communicate to users. In practice, this requires content creators and developers to use proper semantic elements to convey meaning and structure. For example, for a screen reader user to read a web page in the way it's intended, it isn't enough for a heading to be larger or a different color; it needs to actually be coded as a heading element (like an H2 or H3). Other common examples include lists, which can't just have bullet points or symbols in place of proper coding, and tables, which usually need row and column headers to be accessible.

Five of the 12 schools had easily-found accessibility statements linked to from their home page. Accessibility statements are not guarantees of accessibility, but they should indicate that the school is at least aware of its website accessibility obligations and that it intends on meeting those obligations. Accessibility statements often identify an organization's target level of accessibility and how it plans to achieve it. Those statements may link to or may be combined with instructions for what to do if you encounter accessibility issues while trying to use the website.

Some of the websites also featured accessibility add-ons and overlays, which tend to work with varying degrees of success and can actually introduce new issues. For example, they can interfere with the assistive technology somebody already uses or can filter through to some elements and not others, sometimes contributing to an unnecessarily inconsistent or difficult experience. Organizations are always advised to use caution with automated tools that promise 100% accessibility compliance.

This report comes at a time when many of the nation's schools have turned to home-based distance learning as part of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Without in-person interaction, digital communication through channels like the schools' websites is critical to the success of this exercise for everyone involved. Unfortunately, not all students and not all families are being given equal access to that information.

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