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The State of Corporate Website Accessibility


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Web accessibility continues to have important social, legal and economic implications for ecommerce. Over 50 million Americans have disabilities and so do around 600 million world-wide (www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/c2kbr-17.pdf; www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/busstat.htm). Disabilities include a vast range of issues: cognition, vision, motor skills, and hearing. The disabled comprise 19.3% of the U.S. population, more than any other minority group, including the next largest groupHispanics (14.9%).7

This growing population commands significant discretionary funds. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates those with disabilities control $175 billion (www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/ek98/provide.htm) exceeding twice that of teens and 17 times that of tweens (812 year-olds), currently the most sought after demographic groups9 (www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/c2kbr-17.pdf). This untapped, growing market exceeds most company's estimations.

In this study, we extend a previous CACM paper that surveyed accessibility at a snapshot in time with historical and additional perspectives on accessibility of Fortune 100 (F100) Web sites. The initial study revealed that over 80% of the F100's websites were potentially inaccessible to people with visual disabilities. Companies have become more aware of accessibility in recent years, which leads one to wonder whether the predominance of inaccessible websites continues or if companies have actually begun to seriously address website accessibility.

Researchers have called for accessibility reviews over time.1 Following these suggestions, in addition to the initial study sample6 this study adds three additional data sets for a total of four: 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2005.10 The F100 Web sites were chosen for the usual reasons this population is studied, but also because we expect the largest and most profitable companies to be the most likely to have the resources and personnel to ensure website accessibility.

The unit of analysis was the top-level home page for each Web site. This is an optimistic approach as companies may put their best foot forward here and then fail to consider accessibility for lower level pages. Deeper level analyses are possible but beyond the scope of this study.

All samples were analyzed with the Watchfire® Bobby 5.0a Web accessibility validation tool. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines were used to review all error types: Priority 1 (developers must satisfy), Priority 2 (developers should satisfy), and Priority 3 (developers may satisfy) (Table 1). WAI guidelines are a good starting point from which to evaluate Web accessibility and they are quickly becoming the global standard. WAI guidelines focus predominantly on problems encountered by blind users and therefore following only these guidelines will not always ensure accessibility for all disabled people. Given the breadth of existing disabilities it is difficult to evaluate all possible limitations to website accessibility. For this reason and to remain consistent with the previous study, this research concentrates on the WAI guidelines and thus issues that primarily impact visually impaired users.

Automatically identified errors are important, yet many Web site accessibility problems must be checked manually by users or developers. For example, as the first criteria under Priority 1 suggests in Table 1, an accessible website should "provide alternative text for all images." Automated checkers cannot determine if the alternative text provided is meaningful to the user. Similarly, blind users often encounter problems with unlabeled "forms" that would allow them to enter information that could be searched, such as an author or title to a book. Further, 'user checks' may be more important than automatically validated errors because they can hide more subtle, yet potentially more problematic issues. We ran an automated user check analysis to determine the types and numbers of user checks for all sample years (Table 2).

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Results

Initially it appears F100 companies have made their Web sites more accessible over the study period. The percentage of Web sites meeting the criteria in terms of Priority 1 accessibility errors has increased by one-third from 2000 to 2005. This increase, however, is not statistically significant (t-value = 1.04, p-value = 0.304, 2000 Mean 1.05, 2005 mean 0.84). Further, the number of Web sites without Priority 2 or 3 errors has dropped from around five to one (Figure 1).

Further examination of Priority 1 user check errors for all datasets reveals that only 27% of sites were free of both Priority 1 barriers and user checks. These results suggest that companies may use Web site validation tools and correct obvious errors; however they may have expended less effort to examine manual checkpoints. When we factor in the user check analysis, it becomes clear that the number of potentially accessible sites is well below half (30%) (Figure 2). Priority 1 errors are being eliminated, but deeper level errors (Priority 2 and 3) and manual checkpoints may have been overlookedgiving sites little more than "face-accessibility" or a sense of "virtual compliance" to the guidelines. Accessibility appears good on the surface, but deeper exploration reveals potentially serious problems for visually impaired users.

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Quality Issues

A review of the four sample year Web sites for quality issues revealed that a number continue to have problems that often hinder accessibility for all users including broken links, no descriptive text, and no search keywords. Table 3 provides a more comprehensive list of these issues and the overall stability, improvement or degradation of the Web sites over three of the sample years.

Focusing on the 64 companies that remained in the F100 throughout the study, changes in Priority Errors have fluctuated, however they remain somewhat consistent with the main overall trend. In 2000, 22 of the consistent F100 sites had zero Priority 1 Errors and comprised 73% of sites that year with zero Priority 1 errors. Similarly, in 2002 there were 14 consistent F100 sites with zero Priority 1 Errors (82% of sites with zero Priority 1 errors that year). This is a slight increase that dips in 2004 and 2005. In 2004 27 of the consistent sites had zero Priority 1 errors and represent 69% of the sites that year with zero Priority 1 Errors. For 2005, 29 of the consistent F100 sites with zero Priority 1 Errors remained on the list falling to 64% of all the F100 sites that year with zero Priority 1 Errors (Figure 3).

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Discussion

So what do these findings mean? They enhance our understanding of Web site accessibility through a time series analysis that provides breadth and the addition of user check and quality issues. Have there been positive or negative shifts in the number of Priority Errors and Manual Checkpoints? Results suggest that the number of F100 websites with Priority 1 Errors has decreased (though the difference is not statistically significant) (Figure 1). Similarly, for those companies that remained in the F100 over all sample years, the number of sites with zero Priority 1 errors also increased over time (Figure 3).

The same trend is not seen for Priority 2 and 3 Errors. 2000 had the largest number of sites, six, with zero Priority 2 Errors and was also the only year that had two sites with zero Priority 3 errors. For those companies consistently on the F100 list, the number of sites with zero Priority 1 Errors increased from 2000 to 2005. However, the number of these sites with zero Priority 2 and 3 Errors remained somewhat stable.

Findings suggest an important question: Why don't more companies expend the effort to ensure Web site accessibility? We did not survey F100 webmasters, yet other relevant studies provide insights.

Lazar et al.5 surveyed 175 Web masters' accessibility knowledge and perceptions and Knight3 surveyed and interviewed 117 designers, information officers and accessibility advocates about attitudes and knowledge regarding accessibility; these exploratory results are relevant and discussed in terms of possible reasons for not ensuring accessibility. The following are possible reasons why company websites may not be more accessible.

  1. Lack of knowledge or understanding of WAI guidelinesSeventy-six out of 117 (64%) of those interviewed by Knight3 agreed that 'management is unaware of the importance of web accessibility' and the most significant barriers to website accessibility are a lack of policies and awareness by management.3
  2. Inadequate TrainingOne hundred out of 117 (86%) of respondents agreed that 'Developers do not have adequate training' in website accessibility.3
  3. Insufficient time to Incorporate AccessibilityFifty-six out of 117 (48%) respondents agreed that 'most development lifecycles are too short to incorporate accessibility'. That accessibility 'takes too long' was the lowest ranking barrier.3
  4. Technical DifficultyRespondents agreed (78 out of 117, 67%) that 'some WAI guidelines are difficult to implement' and so overall the WAI guidelines were placed third in barriers to accessible Web site development.3 Though 40% of respondents felt it is practical 'to design for all assistive technology devices', a majority (53%) disagreed that 'web accessibility is purely a technical issue'. A significant number of respondents (49%) agreed that 'it is impossible to cater to all users' needs'. The trade-offs in website accessibility are reflected in a majority (56%) agreeing that 'there is a conflict between usability and accessibility'. It is worth noting, however, that 80% disagreed that 'accessibility inhibits innovation'.3
  5. ExperienceAlthough a large number of respondents (115 out of 175, 65.7%) indicated they had previously created an accessible Web site, more than one quarter had not (47, 26.9%).5
  6. Standards not useful due to speed of changeSome criticize the notion of standards. 'What good are standards when browsers change so fast by adding new features every month? Or, the needs or demands of the users change with the latest killer app?'3
  7. Financial Factors51% agreed 'web accessibility provides a return on investment',3 however Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires U.S. Federal Government agencies to provide equal access to and use of ICTs, allows for noncompliance and the requirements do not apply if the cost would place an undue burden on an agency or organization.2 The statute does not explicitly define "undue burden" and studies of government ICT have found low compliance levels and that cost is the primary stated reason for lack of compliance.2 It is just as easy for companies to claim that compliance would place an undue burden on them as well. Some companies fear that increased costs from accessibility would affect their competitiveness, new technology development capabilities and service costs for all customers.2
  8. Legal AspectsA major motivation for improving accessibility is the legal case and the 'lack of legal action' ranked as the fourth barrier to developing accessible Web sites.3

Following the method Schwaig applied to privacy,11 we resurveyed the F100 websites to determine which have accessibility policies; as these indicate a more serious commitment to the issue than if one is absent. Eighty-five Web sites did not have an accessibility policy; while 92 had a privacy policy. Language is another possible accessibility issue and 35 of the sites had a Spanish language alternative, more than twice the number with accessibility statements. These results suggest that F100 companies take privacy and providing access to the large and growing Spanish speaking market more seriously than they do providing access to those with disabilities.

What can companies, both Fortune 100 and others, do to increase website accessibility? Companies must go beyond merely testing with automated software or including text-only website versions. To ensure an Accessible User Experience (AUE), companies need to employ multi-method website accessibility testing that includes a combination of automated validation tools, expert inspections or audits, surveys of Web masters,5 and controlled task and content accessibility12 assessments by accessibility-challenged users.8 Firms that employ these tools will gain a clearer overall picture of the barriers to accessibility and how to correct them. Content accessibility issues are one key area that requires user checking by actual challenged individuals to ensure that the alternative text for images, which is the most common Priority1 error, and table summaries are not only present, but are meaningful to those that need to use them for navigation and comprehension.

Although this work requires additional resources (time and money), increasingly tools incorporate accessibility testing into their functionality. For example, the newest version of WEBXACT can check for accessibility errors, quality errors, and even spelling errors.

Companies can also set Custom Quality Standards. Watchfire, WebXM, and WebQA can identify pages that do not meet site or corporate content or coding standards and alert the designers (see: http://webxact2.watchfire.com/themes/standard-en-us/learnmore-qual.htm #customquality). Information contained in these analysis packages is now more easily copied and pasted into documents, making summaries and comparisons easier for research and development purposes.

Companies must continue to encourage designers to think broadly and deeply for these strategies to effectively improve accessibility.6 Designers must be aware of and understand which assistive technologies are being employed and ensure that sites are validated with them. This requires participation in networks that promote and support accessibility either nationally, regionally or locally. We stress again that it is highly preferred that designers also test with actual accessibility-challenged users; which can result in the resolution of issues before site implementation. Paciello8 points out, "while software may pass automated evaluations, by its very nature, automated testing is incapable of emulating true user experience." Many times vendors present "compliant" software or web pages to their customers, only to learn after release that actual users with disabilities cannot use the applications with their assistive technologies.8

In fact, it is critical that accessibility be included in both website design and development phases. "A common response from programmers after receiving an accessibility evaluation is that it would have been much easier to incorporate the requested changes at the beginning of the site development lifecycle. ... building accessibility into a site early in the development lifecycle saves time and money compared to retrofitting."4 Some guidelines to help designers start the process to incorporate accessibility into their web design can be found at: http://www.w3.org/WAI/eval/, http://ausweb.scu.edu.au/aw03/papers/arch2/paper.html, and http://www.csun.edu/cod/conf/2004/proceedings/203.htm.

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Conclusion and Future Research

So why should companies, website developers and Internet users care? Beyond, the graying of America and most of Europe, the number of people with visual and indeed all disabilities is growing and these consumers have significant buying power. Those with disabilities tend to be comfortable using the Web to make purchases. As their numbers grow and their financial power rises, companies will be forced to make their sites more accessible or customers will show their frustration by spending elsewhere. Second, present accessibility standards are gaining wider acceptance and newer versions are being established. The WAI has already expanded internationally and will soon be required by European Union participants as well as Australia and many Asian countries, such as Japan. People with disabilities abroad control a great deal of discretionary funds, similar to that possessed by consumers with disabilities in the U.S. For example, Britons with disabilities possess an income total of £50 billion, while Australians possess AUS $26 billion and Canadians CAN $25 billion (http://www.conferenceboard.ca/press/2001/workforce_disabilities-e.htm).

The opportunities that website accessibility offers for new organizations and companies are also significant and increasing. A cottage industry around the issue of website accessibility has begun to develop. Examples include consultants, such as the Paciello Group (http://www.paciellogroup.com/) and TecAccess (http://www.tecaccess.net/index.shtml) and development tools (examples listed at http://www.webaim.org/techniques/articles/freetools/). Given the power of the disabled community's dollars, there are many areas of growth for this emerging field.

There are cost-effective approaches that companies can take to increase their website's accessibility. First, companies should employ, at a very bare minimum, automated testing tools to help guide them to obvious WAI violations. Second, they need to begin folding accessibility into their current design and testing process (including usability labs). Third, they need to designate a website accessibility monitor, who will be dedicated to evaluating the website's accessibility and working to ensure the site maintains the highest possible level of accessibility. Fourth, training for Web designers and developers needs to be factored into overall training schedules and budgets. Fifth, companies need to reach out to their disabled customers to help test and provide additional feedback for the Web site team. Their feedback can be folded into the design and developers' training and the Web site's development process. Depending on the internal resources available, companies may also consider outsourcing accessibility monitoring, training, and testing to external firms, such as the ones named above, whose primary focus is technology accessibility.

Future research should investigate how people with various disabilities can be helped by accessible design in terms of the different priority items. This could be useful if companies would like to segment their customers by disability as they attempt to work through all of the accessibility items to make their Web sites accessible to everyone. Another avenue of future research is to focus on the older population and how each of the accessibility items may affect them.

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References

1. Hackett, S., B. Parmanto and X. Zeng (2004). Accessibility of Internet Web sites through time. in A. Sears, Ed. Proceedings of the ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and accessibility, (Atlanta, GA, Oct. 1820, 2004), ACM Press, NY, 3239.

2. Jaeger, P. T. Telecommunications policy and individuals with disabilities: Issues of accessibility and social inclusion in the policy and research agenda. Telecommunications Policy 30, 2, (2006), 112124.

3. 10-14-2003, British HCI Group <http://www.bcs-hci.org.uk/>. <http://www.usabilitynews.com/news/article1321.asp>

4. Law, C., J. Jacko, and P. Edwards. Programmer-Focused Website Accessibility Evaluations. 7th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility Assets '05. (Oct. 912, 2005 Baltimore, MD), ACM Press, NY, 2027.

5. Lazar, J., A. Dudley-Sponaugle and K.-D. Greenidge. Improving web accessibility: a study of webmaster perceptions. Computers in Human Behavior 20, 2, (2004) 269288.

6. Loiacono, E., Cyberaccess: Web accessibility and corporate America. Comm. ACM 47, (2004), 8387.

7. Miller, S. Hispanics replace African Americans as largest U.S. minority group. The U.S. Department of State International Information Programs; <usinfo.state.gov/usa/diversity/a012303.htm>

8. Paciello, M. Testing usability for all: Using assistive technology in user tests. Accessibility Content Magazine 1, 1, (2005), 67.

9. Reimer, S. Teens have a lot of spending power; <http://www.jsonline.com/lifestyle/people/jan04/197442.asp> (Last accessed 31 July, 2005.)

10. Romano, N. C., Jr. Customer relationship management for the Web-access challenged: Inaccessibility of the fortune 250 business Web sites. International Journal of Electronic Commerce 7, (Winter 20022003), 83119.

11. Schwaig, K. S., Kane, G. C. and Storey, V. C. Privacy, fair information practices and the fortune 500: The Virtual Reality Compliance. The Data Base for Advances in Information Systems 36, 1, (2005), 4963.

12. Sullivan, T. and R. Matson. Barriers to use: usability and content accessibility on the Web's most popular sites. J. Thomas, Ed. Proceedings of the Conference on Universal Usability. (Arlington, VA, 2000), ACM Press, NY, 139144.

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Authors

Eleanor T. Loiacono (eloiacon@wpi.edu) is an associate professor in the Management Department of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA.

Nicholas C. Romano, Jr. (nicholas.romano@okstate.edu) is an associate professor at the Department of Management Science & Information Systems, Spears School of Business, Oklahoma State University, Tulsa, OK.

Scott McCoy (scott.mccoy@mason.wm.edu) is an associate professor at the Mason School of Business, The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA.

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Footnotes

a. http://www.watchfire.com/products/desktop/accessibilitytesting/default.aspx

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1562164.1562197

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Figures

F1Figure 1. Percent of F100 Websites with 0 Priority 1, 2 and 3 Errors (per Sample Year)

F2Figure 2. Number of F100 Websites with 0 Priority 1, 2 and 3 User Checks (per Sample)

F3Figure 3. Changes in Errors for 64 Consistent F100 Websites across All Samples

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Tables

T1Table 1. Priority Error Examples

T2Table 2. Priority User Check Examples

T3Table 3. Number of Websites with Quality Issues

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