The legal basis for accessibility compliance is established in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Providing accommodations in response to individual student needs is not adequate; designing IT resources for accessibility proactively benefits all users.
The journey begins with creating a culture of recognizing the value of inclusivity and developing an environment that welcomes all users.
In the past 25 years, the world has witnessed a revolution in the speed and capability of technology to distribute information, rivaled only by the invention of Gutenberg's printing press in the mid-1400s. In the past 40 years, the home computer has been transformed from a novel idea to a household staple. Advances in network infrastructure and the Internet mean that virtually the entire body of knowledge assembled by the human race is available at our fingertips.
Imagine for a moment that this information revolution played favorites. For instance, what if the wealth of knowledge unleashed by the power of technology were only available to people with brown eyes? Or if only people who were at least 5'6" in height could participate in the interconnected society? Such a reality would undoubtedly spawn an entirely different kind of revolution, one calling for equity for all persons, regardless of their physical attributes.
Of course, we don't limit access to IT resources based on eye color or height. But in many cases, the information distributed by colleges, universities, libraries, museums, news outlets, and other sources is not equally available to everyone. Users with disabilities often encounter impediments in their ability to access and use online resources and tools.
Legal Action on Accessibility
The issue of accessibility came dramatically to the attention of higher education in 2015 when the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed lawsuits against Harvard and MIT, alleging discrimination against deaf and hard-of-hearing students because content provided free through the edX platform was not adequately captioned. According to the NAD, approximately 48 million students were not provided equal access to information because of their disabilities. Harvard and MIT delivered thousands of videos and podcasts, often through MOOCs available on edX, but those resources left a cross-section of society behind.
Harvard and MIT are not alone. Many other institutions have faced similar challenges in recent years. In 2015, Atlantic Cape Community College (ACCC) resolved a complaint filed by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) on behalf of two blind students who alleged discrimination. Although ACCC admitted no wrongdoing, the institution agreed to conduct a technology audit and develop a plan to make all student-facing electronic and information technology used by students fully accessible within three years. Similar complaints have been fielded and addressed in recent years by institutions including the University of Montana, Arizona State University, Florida State University, Miami University of Ohio, and numerous others. Colleges and universities are finding that if they do not address accessibility compliance proactively, they will eventually be held to the applicable standards and will be required to address the concerns reactively.
A "Dear President" Letter
Concerns about accessibility are certainly on the radar of many institutions, but this situation did not come without warning. The emphasis on accessible content for all learners came to light in 2010 when the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education sent a joint letter to university and college presidents saying that federal disability laws required that "individuals with disabilities must be provided with aids, benefits or services that provide an equal opportunity to achieve the same result or the same level of achievement as others."
Legally, though, the waters remained murky. Was it adequate to provide accommodation for students whose needs differed from those of the mainstream, or was the provision of accessibility for all students the new norm? An answer to this question begins with an analysis of the terms accommodation and accessibility.
Reactive or Proactive
The origin of the terms in this context comes from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (amended in 1998), which requires federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 was designed to give disabled federal employees comparable access to resources. Section 504 prohibits federal agencies, programs, or activities from discriminating and requires reasonable accommodation for qualified individuals with disabilities.
That said, given that the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was written to apply to federal agencies, how does it apply to higher education? Why is this standard not only a matter of concern but also legally enforceable, according to the Department of Justice and the Department of Education? The answer is found in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title V Section 55200, which states, "All distance education is subject to the general requirements of this chapter as well as the specific requirements of this article. In addition, instruction provided as distance education is subject to the requirements that may be imposed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (42 U.S.C. § 12100 et seq.) and section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended (29 U.S.C. § 794d)."
What does that mean in layman's terms? For one, it means that providing accommodations — something higher education institutions typically do quite well — does not absolve an institution from ensuring accessibility. To help clarify the distinction, consider these definitions from Disability Thinking:
Accessibility is what we should expect to be ready for us without asking or planning ahead. It can be provided by following an easy to implement set of standards and practices that make "adaptation" unnecessary. We can benefit from accessibility without announcing or explaining our disabilities.
Accommodation is for adaptations that can't be anticipated or standardized. They are different for each individual. Although we should expect there to be a general willingness to accommodate us wherever we go, we can't expect actual, specific accommodations unless and until we ask for them. We do have to announce, and may have to explain our disabilities a bit in order to get accommodations.
Accessibility is the baseline of equal service, and accommodation is the second step to take when accessibility alone isn't enough.
Or to put it even more simply, accommodations are reactive solutions to address special cases. Accessibility is a proactive solution to providing equal access for all. Pursuing accessibility means starting the design process with accessibility in mind, not applying principles of accessibility after the fact or only when special cases merit attention. When designing an online course, for example, an accessibility mindset prepares podcasts and video lectures along with transcripts and/or captions. It means posting images with concise and meaningful alt tags. It means ensuring that PDFs are compliant and legible with a screen reader. It means selecting third-party applications and hardware carefully, ensuring that they too meet accessibility requirements. In short, designing with accessibility in mind means that all content and interactions must be made available to learners with diverse needs.
Moving in the Right Direction
Institutions of higher learning have typically understood the need for an effective office of accommodations and provided necessary support and resources for students with special needs...upon request. A review of the legal cases from recent years, however, makes clear that a lot of work is left to be done with respect to meeting accessibility standards. Although it was the Harvard/MIT lawsuit that captured national attention, many similar lawsuits have been filed in recent years. The University of Minnesota Duluth has documented the details of many of these cases, including the following:
- Mesa Community College was sued by a blind student for "needlessly inaccessible" technology (2012).
- Florida State University was sued by the NFB for inaccessible technology (2012).
- Miami University of Ohio was sued by the NFB for failure to make necessary modifications (2014).
- The Department of Education filed a federal complaint against Youngstown State University over website accessibility (2014).
These cases, and many others like them, demonstrate the vigilance of the Department of Justice and the Department of Education in enforcing ADA compliance, often at the behest of the NAD and NFB. The ruling in the Harvard/MIT case demonstrates that institutions will not easily be able to claim financial or administrative hardship, providing a strong incentive to adopt an institution-wide accessibility plan.
Benefits for Everyone
Fear of legal ramifications provides a strong incentive to understand and meet the accessibility requirements of the ADA. However, it should not be the only motivation. A willingness to serve all learners equitably should be at the heart of any institutional accessibility initiative.
Remember, too, that designing with accessibility in mind benefits all learners, not just those with disabilities. Learners are not all the same. Some students learn best by listening, others by reading. When material is accessible in multiple formats, students can use the presentation that best suits their learning preferences. Another benefit to accessibility is the convenience that some students may rely on due to their own individual circumstances. Busy students might not have the time to sit and read a lengthy passage, but they may have the time to plug in and listen to the audio on their phones during a morning commute. Conversely, students who grasp concepts more slowly when listening and need repetition may benefit from a lecture transcript that they can read at their own pace and reread as necessary.
In a study conducted by Penny Ralston-Berg and Leda Nath at the University of Wisconsin, students were surveyed about what makes a quality online course. Ralston-Berg and Nath noted that only seven students surveyed identified as having a disability but that the ADA survey items were valued by all students taking the survey. They concluded that ADA is also important to students without a disability. In the end, accessibility is about anticipating the needs of all students and providing them with the best opportunity to succeed.
If your institution, like many others, has not fully realized the goal of complete accessibility of online content, it is time to proactively address it. For a guide to getting started, one needs simply to examine the previous complaints and suits filed for inaccessibility and their resolutions. The steps to meeting accessibility requirements are often clearly laid out. The following are suggested courses of action to meeting ADA accessibility requirements:
Consider contracting an expert third-party to conduct a full accessibility audit.
Become familiar with tools such as screen readers and accessibility checkers.
Establish a compliance committee that encompasses all departments, including legal.
Build accountability into your personnel infrastructure, including the responsibilities of faculty, support staff, and administration.
Develop a statement of your institution's commitment to both accommodations and accessibility, and adhere to it. At a minimum, as it relates to online content, the policy should include:
an open commitment to providing an accessible website;
an outline of key guidelines and standards the website follows;
any known exceptions to the intended level of web accessibility;
contact information for reporting difficulties with the website.
Involve student government, especially if your institution has an alliance for disabled students.
Develop an employee training plan.
Include accommodations and accessibility training in student orientation.
Develop accessible course design policies and practices.
By embracing the principles of accessibility, an institution demonstrates a spirit of inclusiveness that benefits not just users with disabilities but everyone on campus, including students, faculty, and staff. Keep in mind, though, that cultivating and maintaining an accessible IT environment is an ongoing process. No matter what your starting point may be, the journey to accessibility does not happen overnight, and there is no easy one-step fix to establish full accessibility. The journey begins with creating a culture, not of fear of legal repercussions or of finding loopholes to dismiss accessibility requirements, but one of recognizing the value of inclusivity and developing an environment that welcomes all users. It's a mindset that permeates the organization, a commitment to providing the best learning venue for all users, regardless of their individual needs.
Martin LaGrow is Academic Services senior systems consultant at Ellucian.
© 2017 Martin LaGrow. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.