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June 11, 2003

Worcester Polytechnic Institute Study Finds Most Federal Web Sites Are Not Fully Accessible to the Disabled

From: PRNewswire (press release) - Jun 11, 2003

WORCESTER, Mass., June 11 /PRNewswire/ -- 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 study's results indicate that 67 percent of the 417
federal sites studied do not provide fully accessible sites based on its own
Section 508 criteria. Section 508 calls for all electronic and information
technology purchased by the federal government to be usable by people with
The WPI research team of WPI assistant professors of management Eleanor T.
Loiacono and Scott McCoy, and computer science undergraduate William Chin
spent seven weeks examining the Web sites of 317 agencies and offices from all
three federal branches, as well as those of the 100 largest federal
contractors. They analyzed these sites to see how they complied with federal
guidelines for accessibility in their report, 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.
"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," said 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."
Additionally, the federal Web sites were reviewed by the research team
using industry 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).
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
technologies 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 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 face-to-face meetings
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 first-rate research laboratories
support master's and Ph.D. programs in more than 30 disciplines in
engineering, science and the management of technology.

Contact: WPI Media Relations

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