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A new study shows how COVID-19 websites fail accessibility standards

COVID-19 websites fall short of accessibility standards
Mikhail Nilov
N.C. State University
COVID-19 websites fall short of accessibility standards

Websites in the country's 50 states – including North Carolina – do not meet accessibility standards, meaning some who are visually impaired might not be able to access all information, according to new research from North Carolina State University.

The study analyzed COVID-19 websites from all 50 states and U.S. territories. Researchers checked if sites complied with the AA standard for accessibility established by the World Wide Web Consortium.

"In 2021, none of these public-facing COVID-19 sites met all the checked WCAG guidelines, and things did not get any better in 2023," said Dylan Hewitt, co-lead author of the paper and a Ph.D. student at N.C. State. "We identified a wide range of accessibility problems. For example, some pages were not compatible with screen readers, some pages had limited contrast, some pages did not include alt text for their images, and so on."

North Carolina's COVID-19 website ranked higher than most other states in terms of accessibility. But the study found it still fell short of standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium.

Washington state had the most accessible site, but even it did not have a perfect score, according to the research. Ohio had the least accessible website, according to the research.

State and territories inaccessibility scores compared to mean score
N.C. State University
State and territories inaccessibility scores compared to mean score.

Study co-author Yingchen He said improving websites would increase usability for everyone.

"Accessibility is sometimes viewed as special needs. But this is beneficial universally, regardless of whether someone has disabilities or not," she said.

He and Hewitt said it's less efficient to retrofit a website to improve accessibility and argue developers could have done a better job on the front end to work with a wider group of people to test the sites first. Hewitt said he knows that's expensive, but could pay off in the long run.

"That way if one of your users finds out, 'Oh, well I can't sign up for my Covid vaccine,' later on you don't have a real-world implication where somebody is actually not able to sign up for their Covid vaccine," he said. "You've caught it."

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.