Just as wheelchair ramps and elevators provide access to wheelchair users, good Web design provides “electronic curb ramps” to the Internet for individuals with visual or other disabilities (Waddell, 1997). Research shows it is easier and less expensive to initially construct accessible Web pages rather than to retrofit the pages with corrections. Most of the technical requirements for accessible Web design can be met if Web designers adhere to the straightforward principles suggested by the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative. Accessible Web site design benefits all users, not just persons with disabilities. This is because users with slow Internet connections, users who access the Internet via personal Web devices and users who are speakers of foreign languages may also experience accessibility challenges (Rose & Meyer, 1996). In short, accessible Web sites increase usability. Accessibility, a component of usability, suggests “information systems flexible enough to accommodate the needs of the broadest range of users … regardless of age or disability” (Waddell, 1997). Usability is achieved by designing with the end user in mind, to ensure that a user has access to any Web site, no matter when or how the access is sought (Pearrow, 2000).
Most universities offer application-to-graduation services via the World Wide Web. Students access the Internet to read course descriptions, register for classes, pay tuition, purchase books, submit assignments, take quizzes and check grades. Students appreciate this ability to perform such functions at any time and from any place.
Faculty members seek to enhance student learning via online PowerPoint lecture notes, graphics and Web site links; and both faculty and students routinely access printed, audio and visual resources from around the world. Many faculty members develop their own course Web sites or use course management software packages such as Blackboard or WebCT to supplement their resident courses. Just-in-time (JIT) classroom-based learning now coexists with anytime, anywhere Web-supported learning.
Many persons with disabilities (i.e., visual, auditory, physical and/or cognitive) have limited or no access to the Web. Though approximately 29% of Internet users with disabilities take courses over the Internet or use online resources for their schoolwork (Kaye, 2000), Web-based “schools” are not open to all. Cohn, Molinero and Stoehr (1999) analyzed the Web sites of 25 United States (US) major universities and 76 US pharmacy schools using the CAST Bobby 3.1.1 validation tool. Results showed that 76% of Web sites were not accessible. Two years later, Cohn and Wang (2001) examined 114 US sites of top universities with doctoral programs identified via U.S. News and World Reports; 39% Web sites were not accessible.
Given the globalization of education, international Web site accessibility is also of interest. Cohn and Wang found that university Web sites are even less accessible in China. Only 8% of 62 Chinese university sites identified via the yahoo.com search engine were accessible.
The accessibility of “virtual campuses” is not just an issue of fairness or good business, but is addressed by legislation Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Federally supported institutions now must comply with accessibility guidelines, and government Web sites must be accessible. The US Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board set forth requirements for federal Web sites under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Furthermore, Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act mandates universal access to computer networks (www.w3.org/wai/policy/#USA).