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The Digital Divide: Understanding the Importance of Accessibility in Web Design

The Digital Divide: Accessibility in Web Design

We typically think of accessibility as categorized into two distinct types: Physical accessibility and digital accessibility. With both, there are very real consequences and rewards for whether or not they are reached in educational settings and to what degree. In this piece, we’ll focus mainly on the digital dimension, and explain why achieving digital accessibility is so much more important than “just” meeting a legal requirement.

The Cost of Non-Compliance

First, let’s be clear: There are legal accessibility requirements under Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and if minimum standards aren’t met, there are significant financial consequences. The National Federation of the Blind sued Target for an inaccessible website in 2008 to the tune of $6 million. Advocates and students have brought lawsuits against hundreds of colleges for discrimination based on disability, costing universities hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Public colleges and universities may also lose funding they desperately need if they are out of compliance with Section 504, in addition to the ADA.

Another big non-compliance consequence is loss of time and resources. After four years spent in litigation, Harvard finally settled a case brought by the National Association of the Deaf by agreeing to caption video content, but now must also implement a public process to manage requests for captioning existing content, and use resources to submit reports every six months to the NAD and the Disability Law Center with information about those requests. 

The Department of Justice also responds to complaints about inaccessibility, and can mandate that an institution use its resources to audit and correct web-based and digital technologies across programs, activities, and services. During lengthy and taxing federal investigations, institutions lose control and flexibility over the way they meet accessibility requirements.

Proactively complying with laws can help save money, time, and resources that should be spent on providing all students and faculty with quality educational experiences, and preserve institutional autonomy while doing so.


Alternatively, institutions investing proactively in accessibility reap financial rewards. People with disabilities in the U.S. have a collective $500 billion in annual disposable income, which they are more likely to spend in accessible communities. Using digital platforms, potential college applicants decide whether or not they can opt-in to visiting or apply to enroll. Making conferences and events digitally and physically accessible also increases the potential for attendee participation, engagement, and revenue. Investments including accessibility improvements by the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago, for example, yielded an expected ROI of at least 21 percent. And 51% of high-wealth donors prefer to give online. Providing an accessible, user-friendly website is the way to capture this funding stream from alumni.

Using digital platforms, potential college applicants decide whether or not they can opt-in to visiting or apply to enroll. On the other end of an education, an accessible, user-friendly website is the way to capture value from your alumni community.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Ultimately, if the goal is to create alumni who have had positive academic and social experiences in college, then accessibility is an important factor in getting there. A Post-Secondary Students Longitudinal study showed that only 23% of undergraduate students who reported a disability actually earned a degree in five years. And we know that many more students have disabilities. 27 percent of adults in the United States have some type of disability. And 30 percent of adults between 18 and 24 say that they have had many days where they don’t feel able to function because of their mental health. Yet an April 2022 survey published in The Accessible Campus from The Chronicle of Higher Education cited that just over a third of students with disabilities said they informed their college of their disability. Many students with disabilities do not identify themselves to the Office of Disability Services or seek accommodations because of fear of stigmatization, onerous requirements for testing and medical paperwork, and the related expenses. It is key for learning success and better retention that institutions provide accessible resources and services as a baseline for all students, rather than design everything for students who are neurotypical and able-bodied and then require everyone else to identify themselves through accommodations request processes.

So who’s doing it right? According to an analysis by AAATraq and referenced in The Accessible Campus, less than 10% of websites at 2,000 colleges it reviewed were accessible to people who browse with assistive devices. Institutions that are accessible differentiate themselves. 

“During the first wave of the pandemic, when colleges were rushing to secure the technology they needed for remote learning, many institutions bypassed their usual procurement controls, purchasing software and other tools that were inaccessible,” Lazar said in The Accessible Campus, and “they’re going to be stuck with them for a while.” Institutions that were diligent in procurement or have made significant moves to adjust since the pandemic should emphasize their efforts toward inclusion and flexibility of offerings. Prospective students, students, faculty, and staff all benefit from these investments. With an increase in digital use since the pandemic, institutions have since hired firms to redesign their websites in compliance with accessibility standards, contracted with software companies to provide ongoing digital accessibility checks, and created new positions or departments that are responsible for ensuring accessibility. And there are, of course, institutions that have been doing the right thing all along. College Choice, College Consensus, and College Magazine each publish lists of institutions meeting the mark.

The benefits from being in compliance with (or going beyond!) accessibility requirements are many, but these three are particularly relevant in 2024. For more about achieving digital accessibility, visit our Insights page. 



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