What will it take to move the needle of change?

TRIO Program Accessibility Issues

This past week I considered submitting a WebAIM proposal to a US Department of Education grant competition intended to provide training to TRIO grantees on regulatory issues. The TRIO programs are a collection of federal programs funded to help recruit, retain, and assist completion of postsecondary education for those from disadvantaged backgrounds (e.g., those in poverty, first generation college students, those with disabilities, returning veterans). The different programs range in their age-focus and start as early as middle school going into adulthood. The take away here is that these programs include a focus on those with disabilities.

While researching this grant competition, I decided to scan the accessibility of a small sample of TRIO program home pages to see if a WebAIM proposal had merit. I randomly selected the home pages of seventy 2015-16 TRIO grantees; 10 each from seven TRIO programs (Upward Bound, Talent Search, Student Support Services, Educational Opportunity Centers, Veterans Upward Bound, McNair Achievement, and Upward Bound Math-Science). I then analyzed their accessibility using WAVE. The sad result was that 65 of the 70 pages had automatically detectable errors. Finding that 91% of home pages in this sample had errors WAVE could automatically detect was not expected. I later determined that the grant program I was considering would not be a good fit for our group. This is unfortunate, because it is clear that as a set of federal programs they need to improve accessibility of their own web content.

It’s 2016, how is this still possible?

I have been ruminating on my disappointment with the inaccessibility of these sites. I reflected on the 16-year history of WebAIM, the 14 years of NCDAE, and the many, many efforts of others over more than a decade. How is it that we are not seeing differences in programs that are important to so many?

What is it as a field that we have not tried? As a field we have collectively developed resources, we have developed tools, there are numerous trainings and consultancies and solid supports available. Those of us in the field have worked hard on awareness and even on motivation models (carrots AND sticks). Together we have tied it to logical, ethical, and legal arguments. We have incorporated web accessibility into policy statements, and even into some accreditation work in educational communities. The technical fields have never had as many people aware of web accessibility as it does today. And we have grown the field with those who are skilled in web accessibility. Together we have done many things to help make the web a more accessible place.

Yet taken together, these necessary items continue to be insufficient. Perhaps this is my pessimistic brain working itself out of Winter. Perhaps I could look more optimistically at what we have collectively accomplished—how much worse off we would be had we not all worked so hard? But then I think of those TRIO programs trying to reach out to folks who have been traditionally disadvantaged in higher ed, and I simply sigh. Their web content will be a barrier to some with disabilities. In 2016 this feels disgraceful.

During water cooler conversations on this topic, my right-hand men Jared Smith and Jonathan Whiting indicated their thoughts on how they view the situation. Jared indicated that clearer technical specifications and implementation plans for site accessibility coming from the Feds would help. Entities are being threatened by lawsuits, but they have little policy guidance on what they are (or were) supposed to do – other than not be discriminatory. Jared likens the current policy situation to the absence of speed limit signs – we’re told to not speed, but have not yet been given clear measures for what this means. Jonathan indicated that he thinks many are in a holding pattern, waiting for ADA updates that have been promised for years.

How can we move the needle?

For me, I think that if anyone is actually interested in accessible content they will find the technical specifications that already exist (i.e., WCAG 2.0, Section 508) and just get to work. So I am left with thinking that after all this time and our collective efforts we either don’t have the awareness, the motivation, the support, or the oversight. Taking this back to TRIO, it does beg the questions of whether or not grantees understand their obligation (awareness), whether or not they want to do this work (motivation), whether or not they have adequate guidance on standards (support), and whether or not anyone is monitoring the outcomes (oversight)?

To try and show that other measures of progress are out there, and ease my unrest that the TRIO result might belay a larger problem, Jared performed an analysis on a set of 100 top web sites that had been analyzed in 2011 using the Firefox extension for comparability. His summary was that we have seen little difference on these 100 sites. There were few changes in the number of average WAVE errors per page. However, he indicated that while we could consider it a failure that things haven’t changed much, we must also consider the significant increase in complexity and amount of content on home pages since 2011. I say he is a glass half-full kinda guy.

While litigation is greasing the wheels of change, many of us feel uncomfortable with the spate of legal trolling and thousands of “we are going to sue you” letters that have recently been generated by just a few firms. I am still left with questions. What is it that can done to move the needle on this topic? What needs to happen so that future programs designed to include a focus on those with disabilities don’t lock those very persons out?

What do you think comes next in the field? How should the field focus new effort and energy to invigorate a seemingly stagnant situation? Perhaps Jared and Jonathan’s thoughts on the need for explicit regulation are spot on? Perhaps something else is needed too? I truly want to hear your thoughts and ideas.


  1. Greg Wocher

    This is a hard subject to tackle. So many people have spent thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars developing their websites. I think this makes it hard for them to want to change unless they are forced to. I think that education is one of the keys needed. We need to somehow get accessibility training put into web development courses. It needs to be made a requirement. When I took a couple of web development courses in college a few years ago accessibility was mentioned but more as a side note rather than a major requirement. I also think that the rehab and blindness training organizations need to do better at training people on how to use there accessibility devices better. How we do this I don’t know. It is very scary since most things today are web based or mobile based.

  2. Cyndi Rowland

    Greg I agree that training is very much needed at the preservice level. Unless we tackle that better than we have to date, we will continue to pump new generations of developers into employment without the knowledge and skills that are needed.

    I am hopeful that programs like TeachingAccessible.com are coming into this space to work across tech fields to see what can be included now. It is still a tough hill to climb though. As a faculty member, I recall new content coming into courses and my thought was, “OK what do I eliminate so I can add this?” In a time when postsecondary students need to finish college sooner, and not incur added tuition, extra courses will probably get cold shoulders from many. It is complex, but certainly an important piece of the puzzle. Thanks for adding in your thoughts.

  3. David

    I get the reluctance about litigation, because it makes people hostile and conflict is difficult. No-one (or very few people) want to be in the position of demanding things, making threats, etc. That said, as you say, the field has tried the charitable/ethical argument, the “it’s an audience and a market” argument, the “it’s good for other people and search engines” argument, and nothing works. You can reason, you can beg, you can encourage, but when none of it works, the only option is to demand.

  4. Cyndi Rowland

    That certainly was where the disability-rights fight that led to the ADA ended up. Sadly, this may be where we need to go. But I deeply consider what my colleagues Jared & Jon had to say. That it is time for the Feds to step up and state, then clarify, their expectations. Perhaps we could do a better job encouraging this to happen?

  5. Kelly

    Many fail to appreciate that only a few large technology companies place knowledge and familiarization with Web accessibility in their job postings. If executives are not asking human resources for people with this knowledge, the schools are unlikely to provide it to their students. Those companies that have started to ask applicants about Web accessibility have only done so in the last year.

  6. Cyndi Rowland

    This weekend we were approached and told that if we did not remove an original link in this blog referencing the thoughts and opinions of another on the current legal climate, we would be sued. I took the link down, not because I think we did anything wrong, not because of the threat of a bully, but because I do think it is ridiculous for the accessibility community to be fighting each other. We have bigger fish to fry. WebAIM is always happy to be the adult in the room

  7. Mike Elledge

    Hi Cynthia–

    It’s unfortunate, but the threat of legal action seems to be at least as strong a motivator as the altruistic desire to accommodate the needs of persons with disabilities. It certainly has been a factor where I have worked. Once the threat is recognized, however, the attitude seems to shift to wanting to do the right thing, which is encouraging.

    I’m curious whether the types or number of errors detected by WAVE in your review have changed. Did the sites have fundamental errors, such as missing alt tags? Were they heading errors? Or were they improperly implemented Aria roles? Errors are errors, of course, but (push-back anticipated!) some are more egregious than others, and perhaps there has been some progress in their severity. At least I hope so.

    I’m also a glass half-filled person and it feels to me that progress has been made. The growth of organizations providing accessibility services like Deque, TPG, SSB/BART, MSU UARC and WebAIM would seem to support that. I also think that things will improve significantly once the 508 refresh becomes law and the ADA is revised to include eCommerce sites.

    So I guess I would say don’t despair, continue to be impatient, and let organizations know when their materials are inaccessible. It’s a good, if slow fight, and I believe the momentum is on our side.

  8. Cyndi Rowland

    Jared’s reanalysis of the 2011 sites was interesting. I don’t want to dish out a spoiler alert. After he completed it, he realized that it would make for a great blog on its own. So look for it soonish (he’s training this week).

    Mike, thanks for the words of encouragement.

  9. Ron

    I think the only thing you are accomplishing with the current level of cyber-bullying is that you are changing an atmosphere of empathy and sympathy to one of contempt.

    The programming community is more than willing to offer dual site structures that can easily address the needs of disabled, but as of late it feels as if the disabled community have taken a stand of reverse prejudiced and are demanding the programming community dumb things down for everyone.

    Let me asked why should artistic freedoms be throw away just because the disabled can’t see them. Duality is the TRUE logical solution. I have plenty of compassion for the disabled, but I will be damned if I am going to live in a black and white world because someone can’t see color.

    It just my opinion, but I do not think the disabled communities are going to get compassion by force, and the end result will be rebellion and contempt.

    I would urge everyone on both sides of this issue to work together and pass legislation that would allow web developers and businesses to create dual website where those in need could switch to a less dynamic and more compatible format simply by using a prominent link at the top of the sites pages (much like the links that allow mobile users to switch to the desktop versions).

    The goal here should not be to force the loss of artistically beautiful sites but to supply alternative pages that give access to the same products and services available on their counterparts.

  10. Cyndi

    I would agree that the practice of mass lawsuits with no real litigants certainly makes people’s blood boil, and could lead to what you mention . . . contempt for the very folks accessibility intends to help. I also agree that the sentiment you express should be considered as folks think through issues of motivation for web developers.

    I would disagree, however, that dual sites are a good answer to our problem. Of course I don’t quite know what you mean by “dual”. In the past, people have linked this concept to text-only sites or sites that frankly don’t integrate well with the whole from which they are a part.

    Dual sites are problematic because of several issues. For example, updating hassles. You would need to insure that the “other” site has EVERY piece of information as the main site. If you are going to do this anyway, and have it look half nice, why not have it as the main site? Also at some point a developer would have to decide what this dual site eliminates from the main site in terms of look, feel, and functionality. This could be problematic because we have legal requirements for equivalent communication, and not all users with disabilities are the same.

    In the example of text-only sites as the accessible option, developers in the past assumed that the only folks that needed accessible content were those who are blind. This was a false assumption. A parallel accessible site (text-only) was then the only option available to others with disabilities who needed keyboard access, much like a screen reader (e.g., those without functional use of a mouse). Those with cognitive issues were further burdened by rivers of text, and those who only needed to enlarge their screen found the accessible page to be an awful experience. When individuals were required to go through boring text-only sites, because they were the only accessible option, this essentially was akin to forcing some folks to use the back door of the building and traipse through the kitchen while others got to go up the palatial steps into a grand foyer. Nowadays, the grand entrance is more likely to be accessible and everyone goes in the front door.

    Now I won’t say that anything you build can be made accessible (although most of it can be), I will say that accessible content can be beautiful, and we see brilliant high-end designs all over the place that are visually stunning and accessible all at the same time. So why create a hassle for developers, and why force those with disabilities into a second-class experience? I say simply focus on making the main content available to all. We don’t have to toggle to different sites because we use different browsers? Developers have learned to create flexible designs to accommodate those users too.

    At the end of the day, it is the moral argument that wins it for me. This is a civil rights issue, and we in the U.S. have a social contract to NOT leave others behind. Of course I realize that different people see the approach to this problem in different ways. I do see that your argument is to provide duality as a way to fulfill the obligations of a civil society. I myself would not go that route, as it seems to be more of a hassle than making the main site accessible. Others may have different opinions, and we certainly welcome them here.