On May 19, 2023, the Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” to colleges and universities, addressing the need for institutions to prioritize accessibility and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In this edition of Accessiblü Insights, we’ll discuss how higher education institutions can avoid accessibility-related lawsuits. We’ll cover the importance of the “Dear Colleague Letter,” the role of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and the steps colleges and universities should take to comply with ADA and Section 504 and 508 regulations.
Importance of the “Dear Colleague Letter”
The purpose of the “Dear Colleague Letter” sent by the DOE and DOJ to colleges and universities is twofold.
First, post-secondary institutions must comply with ADA, Title II, Section 504, and Section 508 to ensure equal access to education for individuals with disabilities. Digital accessibility must be addressed promptly.
Second, it outlines the steps the DOJ and DOE are taking to address and enforce accessibility issues in higher education. The letter provides specific examples of approved decrees and links to resolutions as references for what to expect and how to avoid a potential complaint.
In the past year, the Department of Education’s OCR conducted 100 digital accessibility reviews, resolving over 50 in under a year to remove barriers for students.
Understanding the Legal Landscape
The ADA, Section 504, and Section 508 are federal laws that protect the rights of individuals with disabilities. Each of these laws has specific implications in post-secondary institutions.
The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability, while Section 504 ensures that individuals with disabilities have equal access to educational programs and activities.
Section 508 requires that electronic and information technology be accessible to individuals with disabilities. This covers websites, Learning Management Systems (LMS), and all digital course content.
The “Dear Colleague Letter” provides guidance on laws, ensuring institutions know their responsibilities and the consequences of non-compliance. These include OCR Resolutions and lawsuits.
The Importance of Accessibility in Higher Education
Disabilities and Accessibility
Accessibility is not just for students with a physical disability. There are many types of disabilities, including cognitive impairments, which may not be obvious.
Also, no two disabilities are the same. For example, a visual disability can refer to a student with complete vision loss or a student with color blindness.
Faculty should never assume There are no disabled students in their class. Nor should they only make content accessible if they have a disabled student. Remember that by law, students do not have to disclose a disability and that all students should be able to access a document or an online course.
We also must remember that disabilities can be permanent, temporary, and situational. While you may think you don’t have any students in your class with a disability, that doesn’t mean a student can’t develop one during a semester.
As a professor, I’ve had students go through major life events during my classes. Accidents, surgeries, and births can lead to temporary situations covered under the ADA and Title II. By making my course material accessible beforehand, I avoided scrambling to accommodate them later on.
Accessibility and Accommodations
Providing accommodations is not the same as ensuring classes are accessible. An easy way to tell the difference is that accessibility is work done BEFORE the start of a course, and accommodations are provided AFTER a course starts.
To receive a disability accommodation, a student must self-report and is often required by the institution to provide medical documentation to support their request. The institution must approve an accommodation request.
Also, accommodations are typically not retroactive, and faculty may appeal an accommodation request if they feel it is an undue burden to the class. Having an in-class note-taker or a sign-language interpreter is an accommodation.
No student should have to request an accommodation to access course material. All students have the right to access a course and all course material from the start of a course. Having inaccessible learning platforms, courses, and content (PDFs and PowerPoints) is a failure by the institution and the course designer.
Equal Access to Education
Digital accessibility is a civil right in the U.S. that promotes equal access to education for all students, regardless of their abilities. It creates an inclusive learning environment and supports academic success.
Legal Compliance and Lawsuit Prevention
Ensuring digital accessibility is a moral obligation and a legal requirement. By proactively addressing accessibility issues and complying with relevant laws and guidelines, colleges and universities can reduce the risk of accessibility-related lawsuits and the associated financial and reputational costs.
Enhanced User Experience for All
Creating websites and applications that are accessible benefits all users, not just those with disabilities. As more high school students take college courses and adults return to school, improving accessibility becomes even more important for a diverse range of learners, including those who are non-native English speakers.
By incorporating Universal Design principles and adhering to WCAG guidelines, institutions can create user-friendly digital platforms that cater to the needs and preferences of their diverse learners.
Preventing Accessibility-Related Lawsuits
There has been a steady stream of accessibility-related lawsuits against colleges and universities for several years.
Institutions have been held accountable for failing to provide access to digital content, such as websites, their Learning Management Systems (LMS), YouTube videos, podcasts, and other media.
By understanding the legal requirements and taking appropriate action, colleges, and universities can prevent these lawsuits and ensure an inclusive learning environment for all students.
As colleges and universities expand their digital presence, they must also ensure that their websites, applications, and online resources are accessible to all users. Failing to do so deprives students of equal access to educational resources and exposes institutions to potential accessibility-related lawsuits.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Accessibility
UDL is a teaching framework that creates flexible and inclusive learning environments for all learners. By employing UDL principles, educators can create course materials and experiences accessible to a diverse student population, addressing the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Section 508.
Universal Design is a concept that strives to develop environments, products, and systems that are accessible to everyone, regardless of their age, size, abilities, or disabilities. In the digital world, Universal Design means creating digital content and applications that can be used, understood, and navigated by a wide range of users.
UDL is a framework for creating education that is accessible and effective for all, through equitable use, flexibility, simplicity, perceptibility, error tolerance, low physical effort, and size and space approach.
By integrating Universal Design principles into their digital platforms, colleges and universities can ensure their digital content is accessible to all students, faculty, and staff, fostering an inclusive learning environment.
UDL Can Help Faculty Prepare for Fall Courses
As faculty prepare for fall courses, UDL can serve as a guide to ensure that course materials and activities are accessible to all students. This includes providing multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression in course content.
By following the principles of UDL, faculty can create a more inclusive learning environment and reduce the need for individual accommodations.
Most colleges and universities have a center of excellence and learning specifically for faculty. While they may have different names, their purpose is the same; to serve as a resource for faculty professional development.
Typically, these centers are staffed with instructional designers, technologists, and more experienced faculty who are experts in designing courses and materials that are engaging and accessible.
Want to learn more about UDL? The instructional designers on your campus will be happy to help!
Steps Colleges and Universities Should Take to Ensure Accessibility Compliance
To prevent accessibility-related lawsuits and create an inclusive learning environment, colleges and universities should take the following steps:
1. Develop an Accessibility Policy and Plan
Establishing a clear accessibility policy and plan is the first step toward promoting digital accessibility in higher education institutions.
Institutions need to have accessibility policies that ensure fair access to educational opportunities for all students, including digital accessibility and accommodations. This includes adhering to WCAG standards and handling accessibility concerns.
2. Provide Faculty Training on Accessibility Best Practices
Faculty play a critical role in ensuring accessibility in the classroom. Training should include information on ADA, Section 504, and Section 508 requirements and strategies for implementing UDL in course design.
It is important to educate staff and faculty on accessibility best practices to guarantee that digital content is accessible and stays that way. It’s essential to offer guidance on making documents, presentations, and multimedia content accessible. Moreover, it’s crucial to provide continuous training and professional development support to prioritize accessibility.
Faculty should also be trained on how to ensure instructional materials and technology, such as LMS, YouTube, podcasts, and other media, are accessible.
Finally, it’s important for educators and course creators to stress the importance of accessibility to publishers and other outside providers of course materials. Ensure accessibility of digital textbooks and online course content by having experienced individuals vet the material.
Too often, publisher material is not accessible or, at best, has very basic descriptions that do not always match how a faculty member teaches a specific topic.
3. Conduct Regular Accessibility Audits and Remediation
Regular accessibility audits are essential for identifying and addressing accessibility issues on the institution’s websites, LMS, and applications. These audits can be conducted by in-house accessibility experts or outsourced to specialized firms. The audit findings should be used to prioritize and implement remediation efforts.
Departments should conduct regular accessibility audits of their digital content to identify potential barriers to students. This includes adding accessibility as a criteria within curriculum reviews. Address issues promptly to comply with ADA and Section 504/508.
4. Designate an Accessibility Coordinator
Assigning accessibility coordinators is crucial for ensuring policy and procedure implementation. These coordinators can provide guidance to faculty and staff, and work with external entities like the DOJ and DOE to ensure that legal requirements are met.
5. Establish Clear Lines of Communication
Effective communication is crucial in addressing accessibility concerns and complying with legal requirements. Educational institutions must establish reliable channels for students, faculty, and staff to report accessibility issues and request accommodations. This includes providing easy-to-find information on the institution’s website and course materials.
6. Engage with the Disability Community
It is essential to connect with the disability community to understand their requirements and obstacles when it comes to accessibility. Institutions must create avenues for receiving input from students, faculty, and staff with disabilities and utilize this feedback to improve accessibility.
7. Foster a Culture of Inclusivity
To prioritize accessibility, it’s essential to foster an inclusive culture within the institution. This can be achieved by promoting accessibility achievements, acknowledging the efforts of staff and faculty, and communicating the significance of accessibility to the campus community.
The Future of Accessibility in Higher Education
As digital platforms are crucial in higher education. Colleges and universities must ensure accessibility for all students. By adopting a proactive approach to accessibility, institutions can reduce the risk of accessibility-related lawsuits and create a more inclusive and supportive learning environment for all students.
The “Dear Colleague Letter” sent by the DOE and DOJ emphasizes accessibility in higher education and the need for institutions to comply with the ADA, Title II, Section 504, and Section 508 requirements. This article provides steps on how colleges and universities can implement UDL in their course design to create an inclusive learning environment. This approach can prevent accessibility-related lawsuits and guarantee that every student has equal access to educational opportunities.