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In the digital age universities rely on their websites to attract new students and to interact with existing ones. For those students who have vision or hearing impairment, then web accessible websites are incredibly important. In new research, ZW Taylor examines the web accessibility of the landing pages of all 100 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). He finds that the websites of public HBCUs were more accessible than those of private HBCUs, but both had over 50 accessibility errors per webpage.

For decades, the US Congress has tried to keep pace with which Internet technologies have advanced, continually updating Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Under Section 508, federal agencies must facilitate access to digital information for people with disabilities in the form of web accessible websites. As thousands of institutions of higher education receive federal funds and distribute Title IV federal student aid funds, institutions of higher education have always needed to comply with Section 508.

As Internet technologies have advanced and thousands of US postsecondary complete coursework and degrees have moved to be entirely online, it has been increasingly important for US higher education institutions to publish web accessible websites for students with a wide range of disabilities. Students who have vision impairments may require assistive technology that allows them access to text information spoken aloud, while students with hearing impairments may need access to captioned audio and visual material to understand the content. As a result, higher education websites must include a robust amount of metadata in its markup language (e.g., HTML 5) so that the website can be interpreted by hundreds of different assistive technologies a student with a disability may use to access a website.

As some of the most inclusive and progressive institutions of higher education in the United States, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have also been subject to Section 508 guidelines. For generations, HBCUs have been seen as beacons of opportunity for Black children to access higher education, earn a postsecondary credential, and elevate their socioeconomic status in the US workforce. Some of the United States’ most influential and powerful Black figures, such as social justice advocate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison, and United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall have graduated from HBCUs. In no uncertain terms, HBCUs have been and will remain incredibly important and influential institutions of US higher education. However, black students with disabilities have been woefully under-researched in terms of the digital and technological hurdles these students face when attempting to access institutions of higher education. In order to help address this gap in the research, I examined the web accessibility of all 100 federally-recognized HBCUs to explore the hurdles that Black students with disabilities—and all people with disabilities—may face when attempting to access HBCUs landing pages (the front page of a university’s website).

What I found was not particularly surprising, given the extensive history of colleges and universities struggling to publish web accessible websites for people with disabilities. In all, the average HBCU landing page included 62 Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) errors, rendering these webpages non-compliant with Section 508. However, there was great variance among HBCU websites, as public, four-year HBCU websites were the most accessible (53 errors per webpage), while private, four-year HBCU websites were the least accessible on average (71 errors per webpage). Additionally, several HBCU landing pages were extremely inaccessible, with specific HBCU landing pages containing hundreds of WCAG errors. Yet, I also learned that many WCAG errors present on HBCU websites were relatively minor, as many images were missing descriptive text and hyperlinks were missing titles. Simply put, many errors could be fixed by typing one sentence. For instance, adding “This is a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr.” into the metadata of an image of Martin Luther King, Jr. on Morehouse College’s landing page—Dr. King’s alma mater—would render the image of Dr. King web accessible for students with disabilities.

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

Across all types of web accessibility errors–there are hundreds of possible examples according to the WCAG website–HBCU websites often contained errors related to hyperlinks and the name or value of a certain web element (e.g., an image, video, or hyperlink) embedded into the website. This finding was particularly problematic, as websites are built with embedded hyperlinks to lead Internet users from one website to the next by clicking on different hyperlinks. However, many hyperlinks on HBCU websites were missing descriptions, meaning that a student with a visual impairment may have hovered their computer mouse over the hyperlink, but there was no text data within the hyperlink to announce where the hyperlink would lead if clicked on. As a result, students with visual impairments may experience great difficulty navigating HBCU landing pages to find content related to admissions applications, financial aid, or housing because the hyperlinks leading to this information were not adequately described.

My results also suggested that students with disabilities who rely on keyboard-centric assistive technologies may experience more difficulty accessing HBCU websites than students who use an alternative form of assistive technology. In all, I found 270 errors across 100 HBCU websites that were related to missing metadata to communicate with keyboard-centric technologies, potentially rendering HBCU websites very difficult to access for students with disabilities solely relying on their keyboard to use a computer and navigate the Internet. As keyboard-centric assistive technologies are very popular and widely used by people with disabilities, it is imperative that HBCU websites—and all higher education websites in general—improve their website’s accessibility specifically in terms of keyboard accessibility.

Yet, the results of this study of HBCU websites echoes decades of research into the web accessibility of higher education websites: As web publishers have frequently asserted, accessibility is hard. However, software companies have increasingly prioritized the creation of web accessible programs to assist content creators when developing web materials, such as Adobe Inc.’s PDF accessibility checking and Microsoft’s built-in accessibility checker to ensure that Powerpoint files can be understood by a wide range of people with disabilities. Here, it is likely that private industry may be able to develop web accessible software and content much more quickly than US federal agencies and institutions of higher education. Yet, it is promising that these companies have made concerted efforts to develop tools that can be used by web developers to ensure that web accessibility can be improved and access to higher education can be increased for students with disabilities.

Historically Black colleges and institutions have also been keeping their promise to generations of Black students seeking higher education in a US system marred by the effects of White supremacy and racial exclusion. For HBCUs to live their promise to all Black students, HBCUs should explore increasing the web accessibility of their websites, increasing access to higher education for all Black students, regardless of ability.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Z.W. Taylor The University of Texas at Austin
Z.W. Taylor is a research assistant and PhD candidate in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin. His research and advocacy focus on the linguistics of higher education, including how higher education materials can be simplified, translated, and web accessible for diverse student and support network audiences. He has published over 40 peer-reviewed articles, many in top-tier journals such as the Journal of College Student Development, Higher Education Quarterly, and Teachers College Record, among others.