Seven Steps toward IT Accessibility Compliance

Key Takeaways

  • Colleges and universities are subject to various laws and regulations regarding the accessibility of the IT resources they provide.
  • Accessibility leadership can and should come from different levels of an organization.
  • Full accessibility compliance can seem intimidating, but it's important to begin the work, develop priorities, and sustain the effort.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that since early 2016, more than 360 complaints have been filed with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) about the inaccessibility of information technology provided by colleges and universities.1 In recent years, more than 40 institutions have had to respond to lawsuits regarding IT accessibility on their campuses. Resolutions reached by these institutions and the OCR, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division, or advocacy groups such as the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) have required that the campuses caption videos, provide accessible documents and websites, make kiosks and online learning accessible, train campus personnel, and make many other adjustments to ensure that IT used on campus is accessible to people with disabilities.

The legal basis for these resolutions is civil rights legislation that has been around for a long time. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that postsecondary institutions receiving federal funds of any type make their programs and resources accessible to individuals with disabilities, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, along with its 2008 amendments, echo similar requirements without the condition that the institution receives federal funds. Services (e.g., online and hybrid courses, registration processes) that are delivered using IT are covered under civil rights legislation.

Past resolutions define "accessible" to mean that

...a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally and independently as a person without a disability.2

In the remainder of this article we share best practices and summarize experiences of our specific campuses — one that had to respond to a civil rights complaint about the inaccessibility of IT and one that has not received a specific complaint. We describe lessons learned from our experiences, along with the content of resolutions to civil rights complaints reached between other campuses and federal entities.

Best Practices

Resolution agreements and consent decrees from 2005 to the present typically include a set of seven requirements that are, in the words of a recent agreement,

one way to ensure compliance with the university's underlying legal obligations to ensure people with disabilities are able to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same benefits and services within the same timeframe as their nondisabled peers, with substantially equivalent ease of use.3

1. Develop an IT Accessibility Policy

A campus can explore types of policies that might best fit their organization by searching the online resources of peer institutions. There is a wide range of options — from an aspirational policy that points to guidelines, a checklist, and resources to a comprehensive policy that includes the standards and other details within it.

An important issue regarding policy is scope. Institutional policies frequently reference the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) Level AA — from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) — as a standard for conformance. A smaller number of institutions reference Section 508 procurement standards that have been developed for U.S. federal agencies, which cover all types of information and communications technologies (ICT). Campuses that use WCAG 2.0 as a standard but want to address both web-based and non-web-based technologies (e.g., classroom clickers, e-books, information kiosks, digital signage) may refer to W3C's document "Guidance on Applying WCAG 2.0 to Non-Web Information and Communications Technologies (WCAG2ICT)" as an extension of their policies/guidelines. Alternatively, they might include general wording such as that used in the University of Washington IT Accessibility Guidelines after pointing to WCAG 2.0 as a standard: "WCAG 2.0 provides success criteria for measuring web accessibility, as well as provides useful metrics for products and services that are not specifically web-based."

Institutional policies and guidelines should address how to manage the purchases and development of technologies that are noncompliant but are necessary to the teaching and research mission or administrative needs. Rarely can campuses succeed in claiming that the costs of making IT accessible impose an undue burden on the institution or result in a fundamental alteration in its  intended use. However, they may decide to include wording in a contractual agreement that states that the vendor will continue to work on making its product more accessible and that remediation will occur within a specific time frame. For such cases, the institution may choose to explicitly define conditions and a process for granting exemptions for meeting the campus standards on IT accessibility. The campus should offer an effective alternative access plan when IT is inaccessible to a specific individual, generally working with campus offices charged with providing accommodations for individuals with disabilities. Some individuals with disabilities should be provided with assistive technology, such as alternative keyboards and screen readers, that make it possible for them to access computers.

2. Appoint a Coordinator of Digital Accessibility

The resolution agreement with the University of Montana states that the "University shall hire or designate a staff member with responsibility and commensurate authority to coordinate the University's EIT [electronic and information technology] Accessibility Policy and Procedures."4 The recent agreement with the University of Phoenix requires that "at least" two such coordinators be hired, recognizing that people with training in accessibility are in very short supply and are liable to be attracted elsewhere to another institution or to industry.5

Because of the extreme shortage of accessibility professionals, it is very possible that a person appointed to the coordinator position will come to the job with little or no knowledge or experience in digital accessibility. In that case, it is imperative for that person to receive training and opportunities to attend relevant conferences soon after his or her appointment.

Moreover, an initiative designed to remediate accessibility problems in information technology and business processes could result in significant organizational changes, requiring from the newly appointed coordinator the leadership behaviors and political savvy that can instill in leadership and digital professionals alike a sense of urgency and commitment that will drive change.

3. Integrate Accessibility Criteria into the Procurement Process

Addressing procurement issues is complex on many campuses because decisions for the procurement of IT are widely distributed. A resolution agreement with Penn State requires that the university "shall develop and institute procedures that require the University to purchase or recommend only EITs that will provide the same programs, benefits and services that they do to individuals without disabilities…."6 Compliance with the resolution agreement requires communication with potential vendors — for example, through request for proposals (RFPs) — of the institution's policy and the technical standards that the products and services must meet, which in this case is WCAG 2.0 Level AA. An RFP should ask questions of the vendor about its quality-assurance process relative to accessibility, both how they do it and who does it. It should ask for a copy of the vendor's Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), which is used by companies that want to sell products to the federal government. However, purchase decisions should not be based on VPATs alone. VPATs can be out of date or quite inaccurate (note that the first word in VPAT is "voluntary"). The operational maxim in IT procurement should be "trust, but verify."

If relevant questions are not answered in a satisfactory way, then that vendor should be eliminated from consideration or further negotiation should take place before purchase. Ideally, contracts with vendors should include the requirement that their products currently comply and will continue to comply with policies and technical standards and that the vendor will promptly resolve accessibility complaints. For large projects with many interfaces to students, staff, and faculty, either in-house or third-party testing is recommended before purchase.

4. Solicit User Input About Inaccessible IT

The resolution agreements of Penn State, the University of Montana, and other institutions require that a procedure be developed and conspicuously published to allow users to make a complaint to a university official "regarding an EIT (electronic and information technology) accessibility barrier."7 An agreement may also require that every web page links to a statement of accessibility and assurance of nondiscrimination. This same page might, for example, include a description of the complaint resolution process and links to the policy and to a feedback tool.

5. Conduct an Audit

Most resolution agreements include a requirement that an audit be performed on the institution's websites and other IT. Recent agreements require this be accomplished in three steps. First, the institution must propose for approval the vendor or individuals who will conduct the audit; second is the execution of the audit itself on the institution's websites or IT; and third, the university will seek input from stakeholders, "including parents, students, employees, and others associated with the University, and other persons knowledgeable about website accessibility."8

The audit need not include an institution's entire web space. Large institutions can have millions of web pages; a comprehensive audit would not be practical. Agreements usually make a distinction between recent or new web pages/documents and archived resources (based on publication date), requiring recently published pages be accessible and allowing for requests for reformatting of archived pages.

Some agreements allow audits to be made of a representative sample including those web pages and applications that are considered to be critical to meeting the institution's mission. Examples include applications for enrollment, course selection, tuition payment, academic advising, staff attendance, and benefits.

IT code and content change frequently. This results in a process of steady degradation of accessibility due to the application of regular code changes for feature and security updates, as well as changes in content and user interfaces, combined with insufficient competence of developers and IT staff regarding accessibility. To reduce the risk of future complaints, an audit should be repeated on a regular basis, perhaps every six months to a year, becoming essentially a continuous quality assurance process.9

6. Remediate Inaccessible Websites and Other IT

Large universities will have tens of thousands of websites, documents, and videos, as well as a variety of other IT, and will likely have few resources assigned to comply with IT accessibility requirements. This situation calls for a strategy that includes triage — prioritizing the tasks at hand and fixing the problems accordingly. For example, Penn State developed a priority structure that includes both identifying target web pages and other IT and deciding which problems to fix first. Priorities were based on whether a particular resource was

  • high traffic, public, and student facing;
  • mission critical; and
  • high impact (e.g., "everyone must use").

At Penn State, accessibility problems were remediated in a chosen order, with highest-priority issues called "Blockers" and second-tier issues called "Beyond the Blockers." Blockers are almost always tackled before other issues. The University of Washington (UW) proactively reviews high-traffic websites and highly used PDF files and videos and offers assistance in remediation and incentives. Examples include making alternative text descriptions for content presented in graphic images so that screen readers can read them aloud for blind users.

In addition, captions should be routinely provided on publicly available videos to accommodate members of the public who are deaf; ideally, a campus would proactively caption all videos — at a minimum, videos should be captioned in courses that include a student who has captioning as an approved accommodation. At the UW, the highest priority is assigned to publicly available videos of events and marketing and videos that are part of online courses and used repeatedly. A UW program allows individuals to apply for free captioning of high-impact videos.

Proactive IT design, such as making websites and documents accessible and captioning videos before a request is made, is an application of a framework called universal design (UD), which is "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design."10

7. Offer Role-Based Training

Most resolution agreements require training of staff, including webmasters, developers, designers, content creators, instructional designers, quality assurance staff, project managers, procurement officials, and "all others responsible for developing, loading, maintaining, or auditing web content and functionality."11 As with other agreements the Penn State agreement also required that a website containing "a rich set of web resources…[to] provide both tools and training to the webmasters."12

Additionally, a Louisiana Tech agreement requires the dissemination of relevant policies to "all individuals who provide any course-related instruction to University students ... and all University administrators, including ... all persons identified in the 'Organizational Chart for Louisiana Tech University.'"13 The question of faculty development remains both delicate and important because some faculty are reluctant to add additional responsibilities to their teaching and research loads.

Because the information needed by developers differs from information for content creators and designers, an efficient and effective approach to training is to customize according to roles in the organization.

The Penn State Story

In November 2010, the National Federation of the Blind published a press release announcing a lawsuit against Pennsylvania State University, alleging that "Penn State subjects blind students and faculty to pervasive and ongoing discrimination in providing access to services and information and thereby violates Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act." A resolution agreement was signed by Penn State and the NFB in October 2011.14

At the time, the agreement was unique in the breadth of its scope in that it covered much of Penn State's information technology. It required the development of a policy on web accessibility, the completion of an accessibility audit of information technology, that accessibility be considered in decisions in software purchases and contracts, remediation of university and libraries websites, remediation of the university's learning management system (LMS), and an assortment of other specific requirements.

Penn State's response was immediate. The Accessible Technology and Information (ATI) Committee was formed from a core of accessibility leaders from a number of units in Penn State's system. A virtual organization called the Web Liaisons had been formed in 2004 when Penn State's first web accessibility policy was published. That group was reenergized by the provost when he mandated that leadership in all units appoint a representative to the group. The Web Liaisons provided leadership from the middle ranks of management and was a conduit for the flow of information to and from the ATI.

The first priority of the initiative was to train web professionals — front-end developers, designers, and content authors — in the essentials of accessibility and in the use of testing tools to identify problems. Other requirements of the resolution agreement were implemented, each in their turn.

Today, the IT Accessibility Team (ATeam) provides user testing, technical consulting, and training to all units and enterprise IT projects at Penn State. In particular, the ATeam works with Purchasing Services and Risk Management to ensure that all purchases comply with the IT Accessibility Policy or have an approved exemption from the policy to account for special situations.15

Policy AD69, which was updated in September 2016, prior to the most recent resolution agreement, incorporates WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliance. The trend nationwide has been that educational institutions adopt WCAG 2.0 AA, and it is no coincidence that compliance with WCAG 2.0 AA is a common requirement in resolution agreements negotiated by the DOJ and OCR in their actions against educational institutions.

The University of Washington Story

The University of Washington has supported accessible technology activities since 1984 without a civil rights complaint about inaccessible IT. Accessible Technology Services (ATS) directs these efforts. ATS practices with respect to accessible IT are guided by the UW vision to educate a diverse student body and by the university's values of diversity, excellence, collaboration, innovation, and respect. It has also been guided by the DOJ and OCR resolutions since they began to appear, the contents of which have been summarized in the 2015 EDUCAUSE report "IT Accessibility Risk Statements and Evidence."

In 2012, the UW instituted a campus-wide IT Accessibility Task Force with a variety of stakeholder groups and developed IT Accessibility Guidelines that point to WCAG 2.0 Level AA as a standard measure of accessibility and link to a checklist to guide campus webmasters and other IT personnel in IT accessibility. In 2016, an aspirational policy, the UW Policy–IT Accessibility, was adopted, which states:

The University of Washington (UW) strives to ensure that people with disabilities have access to the same services and content that are available to people without disabilities, including services and content made available through the use of IT. IT procured, developed, maintained, and used by the UW should provide substantially similar functionality, experience, and information access to individuals with disabilities as it provides to others. Examples of IT covered by this policy include web sites, software systems, electronic documents, videos, and electronic equipment such as information kiosks, telephones, and digital signs.

Washington State Policy #188 on IT accessibility, which came into effect in August 2016 and with which the UW must comply, "establishes the expectation for state agencies that people with disabilities have access to and use of information and data and be provided access to the same services and content that is available to persons without disabilities unless providing direct access is not possible due to technical or legal limitations." Requirements of Policy #188 include assigning one person as the Policy #188 coordinator; for the UW, this is the director of ATS, co-author of this article.

Ongoing leadership is provided by the director of and staff within ATS (the "IT Accessibility Team"), with guidance and outreach provided by, respectively, the IT Accessibility Task Force and IT Accessibility Liaison volunteers who develop skills and promote IT accessibility within their units. Key aspects of the UW approach to IT accessibility — in addition to the development of policy, guidelines, and checklist — include the following:

  • Develop an internal roadmap document
  • Promote accessibility within context of UD, civil rights, and inclusive campus culture
  • Build on current policies and procedures
  • Model IT accessibility compliance after IT security compliance efforts
  • Undertake efforts that are both reactive and proactive and both top-down and bottom-up
  • Support a campus-wide IT Accessibility Task Force
  • Create annual reports regarding IT accessibility
  • Continually enhance online resources to support IT accessibility efforts
  • Conduct an audit of the accessibility of prioritized IT and develop corrective action strategies
  • Offer stakeholder-specific trainings, consultations, captioning parties, capacity building institutes, and other events
  • Support multiple user groups
  • Proactively test websites and PDFs and help remediate them
  • Offer incentives (e.g., free video captioning for high-impact videos and conduct PDF remediation pilots)
  • Work closely with the procurement office to promote the purchase of accessible IT

The UW also does engages with other postsecondary institutions by conducting statewide capacity-building institutes and supporting an online community of practice for this group.

Key Lessons in Institutional Practice

In addition to the seven best practices we found to be common in resolution agreements and consent decrees, the following broad lessons have been learned from the experiences of the UW, Penn State, and other institutions as they wrestle with diversity, ethical, and legal issues surrounding the accessibility of IT procured, developed, and used on their campuses:

  • Get started! Acknowledge that improving the accessibility of IT at an institution is an ongoing process, not a short-term project. Prioritize your work. Begin with top-level, high-traffic websites and PDFs.
  • There is a need for top-down as well as bottom-up leadership. Leadership can come from anywhere in the organization. This includes adequate administrative sponsorship of accessibility initiatives.
  • Appropriate policies, guidelines, business processes, and resources should be designed and implemented to create an integrated system of student support and compliance that fits seamlessly into the teaching, research, and administrative functions of our institutions.
  • Priority efforts should address the accessibility of high-impact videos, websites, enterprise applications, and documents.
  • Training should be tailored to specific stakeholder groups.
  • Nurturing a community of practice can help build leadership in and commitment to IT accessibility. That community of practice can and should reach across unit and campus boundaries. Institutional challenges require institutional responses.
  • Incentivizing IT accessibility by rewarding leadership and development in the performance review and other human resources processes can promote change.
  • EDUCAUSE's "IT Accessibility Risk Statements and Evidence" is a good place to start to explore what activities to implement on your campus.

Conclusion

Civil rights legislation and regulations serve to ensure that colleges and universities make their services and resources accessible to individuals with disabilities, including those delivered using information technology. Complaints and litigation based on violations of Section 504 and Title II are increasing in frequency, and the ethical imperative to make institutions’ programs and services inclusive is clear.

Recent resolution agreements between postsecondary institutions that have received civil rights complaints because of the inaccessibility of their IT and government agencies and advocacy groups have many similarities in their terms and requirements. Our analysis of those agreements can be used as a roadmap for institutions as they proactively seek to ensure that the procurement, development, and use of IT is accessible to everyone on their campuses.

Acknowledgments

The creation of this article was funded in part by the National Science Foundation (#CNS-1539179). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Notes

  1. Peter Schmidt, "One Activist Has Hundreds of Colleges Under the Gun to Fix Their Websites," Chronicle of Higher Education, July 6, 2017.
  2. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 (1973)
  3. Pennsylvania State University and U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, "Resolution Agreement Pennsylvania State University Case Number 03172041."
  4. University of Montana and Office of Civil Rights, "Resolution Agreement, OCR Reference No. 10122118," March 10, 2014.
  5. University of Phoenix and Office of Civil Rights, "Resolution Agreement, OCR Case No. 08-15-2040," June 12, 2015.
  6. Pennsylvania State University and National Federation of the Blind, "Settlement Between Penn State University and National Federation of the Blind."
  7. Ibid.
  8. Pennsylvania State University and U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, "Resolution Agreement Pennsylvania State University Case Number 03172041."
  9. Jonathan Lazar, Daniel F. Goldstein, and Anne Taylor, Ensuring Digital Accessibility through Process and Policy (Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2015).
  10. North Carolina State University College of Design, "The Center for Universal Design."
  11. Pennsylvania State University and U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, "Resolution Agreement Pennsylvania State University Case Number 03172041."
  12. Pennsylvania State University and National Federation of the Blind, "Settlement Between Penn State University and National Federation of the Blind."
  13. Louisiana Tech University, "Settlement Agreement Between the United States of America, Louisiana Tech University, and the Board of Supervisors For the University of Louisiana System Under the Americans with Disabilities Act," July 23, 2013.
  14. Pennsylvania State University and National Federation of the Blind, "Settlement Between Penn State University and National Federation of the Blind."
  15. Vice President for Administration, "Policy AD69 Accessibility of Electronic and Information Technology," Penn State, September 26, 2016.

Sheryl Burgstahler is director of Accessible Technology Services, University of Washington.

Christian Vinten-Johansen is manager of the IT Accessibility Team and co-chair, Accessible Technology and Information Initiative, Pennsylvania State University.

© 2017 Sheryl Burgstahler and Christian Vinten-Johansen. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.