Volume VIII Number 2, September 2002

Website Accessibility and The Private Sector: Disability Stakeholders Cannot Tolerate 2% Access!

Ronald E. Milliman, Ph.D.
Department of Economics and Marketing
Western Kentucky University

Introduction and Problem

Among website designers, the issue of website accessibility has become a very controversial topic. Because of poor design, it is estimated that up to 40% of the potential market is not able to fully access most websites, taking into consideration various disabilities and wireless devices that have limited web browsing capabilities. While the needs of wireless devices are being addressed quite rapidly, in sharp contrast, designers are accused of continuing to ignore the needs of various disabilities.

It is estimated that there are up to 54 million people in the United States (with a disposable income of approximately $1 trillion), and another 750 million persons world-wide, (NCD #01-326, May 18, 2001, http://www.ncd.gov) with various disabilities whose full access to the web is limited because of poor, non-compliant web design; for example, a person who is blind needs an alternative to visual access in order to be able to fully access a website. As our population ages, the number of persons encountering such challenges is getting larger.

In addition, various Federal laws and Regulations (e.g., Section 508) have placed considerable pressure on web designers of all government entities and firms seeking to do business with the Federal government to make their websites fully accessible. To minimize the possibility of being sued, all web designers for firms, large and small, private or public, for-profit or not-for-profit must deal with this issue of web accessibility.

This paper seeks to answer the question: after the initiation of Federal Regulation Section 508 on June 21, 2001, does the problem of poor website design still exist in the private sector, resulting in inaccessibility to persons with various disabilities? If so, to what extent? Can disabled stakeholders tolerate continued disenfranchisement?


Questions to Be Answered

This study attempts to answer the following key questions:

  1. What proportion of firms, excluding government entities, has accessible web sites?
  2. Of those firms that have inaccessible websites, what reasons are given for their inaccessibility?
  3. What would it take to encourage firms that have inaccessible websites to make their websites accessible?

Research Design

This research was executed as an empirical field study. It was intended to be primarily a descriptive, as opposed to an inferential, type study. An e-mailed multiple-item questionnaire was used to collect the data. The sampled firms were divided into large compared to small which were further sub-divided into Business-to-Business (B2B) and Business-to-Consumer (B2C) types; profit-seeking firms were compared to not-for-profit types. Each organization that returned the questionnaire was given a free CD that covered the issue of website accessibility and the related law, and a detailed "Website Compliance Analysis."


The questionnaire was sent by e-mail to the web master or web designer designated for the websites of a sample of 1080 organizations taken from each of the categories mentioned. A major "opt-in" e-mailing list broker provided the e-mailing list.


Of the 1080 organizations contacted, a total of 453 participated by returning the completed e-mailed questionnaire for an overall response rate of 41.94% (see Exhibits 1a & b).

What proportion of firms has fully accessible websites?

All of the websites of the firms selected in the initial sample of 1080 were tested using "Bobby," a tool that assists website authors in identifying the changes needed to make their pages usable by persons with disabilities. Of the 1080 firms, only 19 or 1.76% had accessible websites, meaning 1061 or 98.24% failed the Bobby test. Among the profit-seeking compared to the not-for-profit firms, 2 (out of 63) and 5 (out of 89) were accessible according to Bobby (see Exhibit 2a & b).

What reasons are given for inaccessibility?

Not familiar with the W3C accessibility standards 36 7.93
Some familiarity with the accessibility standards, but not knowledgeable of the exact techniques for making their site fully compliant 79 17.40
Insufficient funds to make their site compliant 58 12.78
Persons with disabilities are not a part of their target audience 191 42.07
They just have not had the time to deal with it 41 9.03
It is simply not a priority with them 44 9.69
Other 5 1.10

What Incentives Would Work Best for Achieving Compliance to Accessibility Standards?

Possible choices and their respective rates of response:

Making non-compliance punishable by a substantial legal penalty 45 9.91
Only when it can be shown that compliance will result in noticeably larger website traffic 247 54.41
A government matching fund to help offset the costs 96 21.15
More education on "accessibility issues and how to make sites compliant" 66 14.54


98.24% of the websites examined in this study representing all types of firms, large and small, B2B and B2C, and profit-seeking and not-for-profit, failed the Bobby test for website accessibility and thus are not in compliance with Federal Regulation Section 508 nor the W3C Consortium standards. It was revealed that web designers were not knowledgeable of the exact techniques for making their site fully compliant (17.40%), and web designers felt that persons with disabilities were not a part of their target audience (42.07%). It is true that all persons with disabilities are certainly not a part of every firm's market, but every firm's target audience probably includes some persons with some type of disability. Also, websites will be made compliant only when it can be shown that compliance will result in noticeably larger website traffic (54.41%), and websites would be made compliant if a government matching fund to help offset the costs were available (21.15%). The first of these responses is a "catch 22" situation and the second is very unlikely. Can disabled stakeholders tolerate only 2% of the websites on the Internet being accessible to them? The answer is a resounding: NO!


Summary of Response Rates

Total Firms
Mailed 180 180 180 180 720
Completed 72 83 69 77 301


Summary of Response Rates

Total Firms
Mailed 180 180 360
Completed 63 89 152


Summary of Results Related to Question One

Total Sample
# Compliant


Summary of Results Related to Question One
Participating Firms
  B2C B2B B2C B2B  
# Participated 72 83 69 77 301
Compliant 5 3 2 2 12


Summary of Results Related to Question One

Participating Firms
# Participated 63 89 152
Compliant 2 5 7
Milliman, R. E. (2002). Website accessibility and the private sector: Disability stakeholders cannot tolerate 2% access. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 8(2).