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.