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Seeking Clarity: Web Accessibility in Higher Ed

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Photo of Karen Sorensen
by Karen Sorensen
Accessibility Advocate for Online Courses
Portland Community College

Federal law mandates that the Web sites of post-secondary institutions are accessible to those who are blind, experience low vision or color blindness, deaf, hard-of-hearing, have photosensitive seizure disorders, or have a mobility disability that limits their use of a mouse, to be eligible to offer students federally-funded financial aid or receive funding from federal grant programs.

If the content on a higher education institution's Web site is inaccessible to a person with disabilities, the college or university is out of compliance with federal disability laws (such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)) and risks being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights or receiving a discrimination lawsuit from a student who cannot access his or her online courses or other college services.

The threat is real.  Recenty, the National Federation of the Blind has filed civil rights complaints against multiple higher education institutions, and has helped blind students sue their colleges or universities for discrimination due to their inaccessible Web sites.

These lawsuits, combined with a Dear Colleague Letter the Departments of Education and Justice sent to every college and university president in June 2010, and a follow-up letter they sent in May 2011, have made it clear that college Web sites are subject to the non-discrimination requirements federal funding imposes. However, since neither Section 504 nor the ADA specifically address Web accessibility, how does a college know when it is in or out of compliance?

The Department of Education's only standard for measuring compliance is the ADA requirement that communications with persons with disabilities is “as effective as communications with others” [28 C.F.R. ss 35.160(a)].  There is a proposal to add a set of Web accessibility standards to the ADA, but they have not yet offered a clear direction to Web developers.

Thankfully, accepted Web accessibility standards do exist.  Another section of the Rehabilitation Act, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, outlines the U.S. federal government’s accessibility standards for its own electronic and information technology, including Web sites.  The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 also offer internationally-accepted standards.  Some people feel the government will probably use its own standard (Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act) to measure the accessibility of college and university Web sites.  However, WCAG 2.0 is generally considered to be a better standard for Web developers to follow. WCAG 2.0 is much more specific to Web design and development, whereas Section 508 applies to all electronic information and technology.  Section 508 is being updated to incorporate many of the WCAG 2.0 standards.

What guidelines should your institution follow?  A good first step is to find out if your state mandates a Web accessibility standard for schools, colleges or public institutions.  Since many states lack these guidelines, instititutions must often create their own policies.  For example, Portland Community College (PCC) chose to adopt the WCAG 2.0 standards because the state of Oregon does not issue Web accessibility guidelines for public institutions.  PCC selected the second, moderately-stringent option out of three levels of compliance (A, AA, or AAA), which many other higher education instituions have also adopted.  A policy announcing our standard is forthcoming, and Terrill Thompson from the University of Washington has compiled this helpful list of policies from other higher education institutions.

Choosing the Web accessibility standards your institution will follow is a key first step to ensuring compliance. While most colleges and universities are struggling with a lack of clarity in the federal government’s regulations, a growing number of resources can help ensure all students are able to benefit from your online offerings.  This article is the first in a series that will explore the process of addressing online accessibility.

Fall 2012 Issue of the ITC Newsletter, Instructional Technology Council.