WebAIM - Web Accessibility In Mind

508 and Higher Ed.

The National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE), a partner, is currently involved in a project to help educational institutions improve the accessibility of their online content. As part of the project, I recently conducted an evaluation of 100 randomly-selected web pages, each from a different higher education institution website. The pages were evaluated for Section 508 compliance. The results were a little surprising. . .only three of the one-hundred pages complied with Section 508. Although more details will be submitted for publication soon, I wanted to share some of my results and opinions with the WebAIM community.


Skip to content links

Of the 97 pages that contained repetitive navigation, 85, or 88%, had missing or broken skip to content links. This made it the most commonly violated checkpoint. Of the many sites that provided skip to content links, only 12 had functioning links. The rest were broken. A few had the link in place, but the corresponding anchors were missing or incorrect. I also found that about one page in ten had a skip to content link that had been hidden using visibility:hidden or (more often) display:none, making it inaccessible to keyboard and screen reader users. There were only a handful of pages, no more than five, with a hidden skip to content link that was both screen reader and keyboard accessible.

Form labels

Of the 76 pages that had form elements, 63, or about 83%, of the pages had at least one element with a missing or incorrectly-associated label. The vast majority of the pages had only one form element–the search box. That raises a question–if a screen reader user encounters an unlabeled form element on an unfamiliar site, can they assume that it is a search box?

Alt text

Each of the 100 pages that I evaluated had at least one image. 71 of the pages (I’ll let you figure out the percentage on this one) had at least one image–most had more–with missing or inappropriate alt text. Although 71 pages is still a high number, I am encouraged that almost 30% of the pages I evaluated had appropriate alt text. That is a higher percentage than any other 508 studies that I have seen. Of course, I was fairly liberal in my interpretation of an "alternative." I passed alt text that was a little lengthy or slightly inaccurate, so I suppose it would be more accurate to say that almost 30% of the pages that I evaluated had images with accessible alt text that reached a minimal standard of equivalence.

Even though I am encouraged that more sites seem to be using alt text, I would argue that it is still the highest priority accessibility concern on the web. Even though I came across more pages with missing skip to content links, I came across far more instances of missing alt text. If I had tracked number of errors, missing or inappropriate alt text would have been the clear winner (or loser).

It is also much more difficult for a screen reader to compensate for missing or inappropriate alt text. If a page has missing form labels or table headers, a screen reader will often be able to compensate. If an image has a missing alt attribute, the screen reader will either ignore the image or read the filename

Despite the apparent improvement in the use of alt text, there seems to be a disturbing increase in the number of images as links that are missing alt text (every image that is a link needs alt text). This is a trend that we have noticed during this evaluation and on the web in general. Either that or we just notice it more because we now have a rule or icon for it in WAVE 4. This is unfortunate because while many images with missing alt text probably do not need alt text, every image that is a link needs alt text.


Even though it is not specifically addressed in 508, except possibly as a method to skip repetitive navigation (o), I also decided to see how many pages provided a heading at the beginning of the content. I was surprised to find that only 46% of the pages did this.

In my opinion, good semantic structure is one of the most essential and overlooked accessibility issues. A clearly-structured site is usually easier to understand, navigate, and is more accessible to users, particularly those with cognitive disabilities.

Other findings

  • Five of the pages that I evaluated had data tables, none of which identified table headers.
  • I came across one frameset, which did not have titles.
  • 94 pages had scripting. 17 of these pages (18%) contained inaccessible scripting.
  • 51 pages had links to files that require a plugin. Almost all of these were PDF files. 36 pages, or 71%, did not provide the required link to the plugin. Since modern browsers automatically detect missing plugins for common formats, this is arguably an outdated requirement.
  • There were no pages with server-side image maps.
  • There was one video. It was not captioned.


508 Falls Short

WebAIM is often asked to conduct accessibility evaluations, and many times we are asked to evaluate a site for Section508 compliance. Sometimes this is appropriate, but when possible, we try to convince our clients that 508 is not an acceptable criteria for accessibility. Section 508 is very important in the United States. If you live in the US, and are involved with web accessibility, you should be familiar with the 16 checkpoints that relate to the web. For those of you who are not familiar with 508, you may want to review our Section 508 checklist. It is important that anyone familiar with web accessibility be familiar with Section 508. However, as a standard for accessibility evaluation, 508 falls short. A good deal of the information is repetitive (e.g., image maps) and dated (e.g., links to plugins). Fortunately, 508 is currently in the process of being updated.

College Websites are Behind the Times

I don’t know if it is because colleges often have decentralized web development teams, or because website development and maintenance is not a part of their core mission, or if I am just spoiled by the many good sites that I visit, but I was a little surprised at the low quality of many of the college websites. Many of the sites seemed dated, poorly structured, and not very accessible. Quite a few of them loaded slowly, and many links that were functioning when they were randomly selected were dead a couple of weeks later when I evaluated them. Some of the sites were from small, two-year colleges that probably operate on smaller budgets, but many were not.

We still have our work cut out for us

WebAIM started as a grant-funded project with the primary goal of dissemination and awareness. Even though our funding sources have changed, these are still our primary goals. As we travel to conferences and trainings, it seems that the knowledge and awareness of the people that we interact with is growing. Their level of familiarity with accessibility principles is, as a group, higher than it was a few years ago. Most of the people we train have seen a screen reader in use and are familiar with basic accessibility concepts like alt text or form labels. This wasn’t the case even five years ago.

That is why it was surprising, and even a little disappointing, to see that the accessibility of many of the sites that I evaluated seemed to be almost the same as, and in some ways worse, than sites designed five years ago. There are clearly many people who have not learned the basics of accessible web design or do not appreciate its impact. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.


  1. Mike

    how about using a linked, borderless (border=0) transparent gif for this and position it at top:0px;left:0px; ? Then have the alt text for the link and/or image be “Skip to content”

  2. Christy Tucker

    Mike, there’s another article here that talks about the disadvantages of the alt text method. The invisible content article gives a couple of other options for these links using CSS.

  3. Dennis at Web Axe

    Thanks for the article. So it seems college web sites *and the entire U.S.* is behind in web accessibility.

    Mike: Check out the skip nav technique on the Web Standards Project web site. http://www.webstandards.org/

  4. cbd

    I’d like to hear more about this “project to help educational institutions improve the accessibility of their online content.” I agree it is sorely needed. Last year a job candidate told me of the 40+ schools he’d looked at in his research, my department was the only one with a standards-compliant web site. And that’s just one measure of poor accessibility…

  5. Mike

    Thanks for the replies! I’d also emailed a blind friend who is a QA tester for Freedom Scientific and, while she likes the skip-to-content links, she’s more of a hardware person and couldn’t recommend a best method, as she never paid attention to how it’s done.

    The skip-to-content feature on http://www.webstandards.org/ didn’t work when I tried to navigate with the tab key, though. I like the one on http://webaim.org/techniques/css/invisiblecontent/ and will implement that later this week.

    Thanks again. Now, if I can get our content developers to use long descriptions for flash animations and data tables…


  6. bill

    My work website provides movie trailers from Yahoo!, which are not currently captioned.

    Too seldom is a “professionally” captioned video trailer available.

    Is there a way to find out about the rights caption a video?

  7. Kendall

    I am somewhat surprised by those results, and yet not surprised. I’ve noticed it more with high school web sites that often get done by the students that are horrible when it comes to section 508 among many other web design principles. My college did a pretty good job and have resources for faculty and staff to read about section 508 and other good practices, not that the main web developers always follow it, but they do a decent job compared to many that I’ve come across. It’s a shame too, because a lot of it can be done fairly easily without messing up an existing design.

  8. Katy

    Jon – You mentioned that your findings will be published soon. I’m very interested in them – where can we read about them? Thanks, Katy

  9. Deborah

    Jon – Interesting article that is close to home for me, since I recently began work in the website department of a local college. One of my tasks is to provide guidelines for creating accessible PDF files.

    Our department works on Macs. In contrast to the PDF files I’ve created on Word for Windows by clicking on the Acrobat icon in the toolbar, I discovered that Word for Mac does not produce tagged PDF documents. The conversion settings for Adding Bookmarks, Adding Links, and Enabling Accessibility Reflow and Tagged PDF is not available on Word for Mac.

    Despite posting several messages on the http://www.acrobatusers.com forums, asking for confirmation, I haven’t received any response about Word for Mac and tagged PDFs.

    I’m wondering what process web professionals who work on the Mac use to created tagged PDFs from Word for the Mac? Perhaps I’ve missed some info on the Adobe site? Any suggestions?

  10. CJ Ingel

    Many colleges just don’t put accessibility (and enforcement of any kind) high up the priority list. If any college page is going to be accessible, it will be the home page. The worst pages tend to be the ones created by individual faculty or staff members. I say this as a faculty member who teaches web accessibility to faculty.

  11. Jon Whiting

    Sorry for not replying to comments sooner.

    cbd, the project is called GOALS (Gaining Online Accessible Content Through Self-study). You can learn more about the project at ncdae.org/goals. There isn’t much information right now, but that should change within the next few months.

    Katy, I will post here when the report is published.

    Deborah, I am currently rewriting our PDF and Acrobat article. I will make sure to give Word for Mac a look and include anything that I find in the article and/or a blog post. Look for the article in a couple of weeks.

  12. Deborah

    Hi Jon,

    Thanks for the response. I look forward to the new PDF and Acrobat article. For Word for Mac, I did get a response yesterday, that Word for Mac with Acrobat Professional installed will not produce tagged PDFs.

    Distiller can be used to set some default conversion settings, but Distiller won’t add the links, bookmarks, and table of contents to the PDF produced from Word for Mac. For more info, visit Acrobat Users Forum.

  13. Deborah

    Hi Jon,

    Just following up on the revised PDF and Acrobat article. Any news on when the updated article will be published?

  14. Rob Fieldman

    Hello. been following your articles latetly and I came across this one. Thanks, it’ll keep me thinking for a while.

  15. bailing

    Just following up on the revised PDF and Acrobat article. Any news on when the updated article will be published?