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Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there has been a heightened awareness of the need for more-enhanced digital accessibility in higher education. In early 2020, students throughout the world were transitioning to online courses en masse and were required to attend virtual lectures and submit assignments online. Technology undoubtedly helped students in higher education keep up with learning. However, higher education has been a challenge for students with disabilities even before the pandemic began. It’s essential that every student has the same access to information and services online, whether submitting coursework or scheduling a private workspace in the library.
Do universities need to be digitally accessible?
It’s tempting to think that most of what goes on in traditional universities is in-person instruction, such as lectures, labs, and in-class studying. But, that’s quickly changing. This line of thought overlooks the fact that for today’s students, accessing digital educational services and platforms is something that is expected of them. For example, many universities now have their own mobile apps where students can schedule meetings with their professors, check where their next lecture is, and even rent a laptop to write an assignment. Lectures are even regularly recorded and shared online, meaning students with disabilities who may not always be able to attend class in person can continue to participate.
Today, many students are enrolling in various forms of higher education. Many choose to enroll in online-only courses. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 7 million students were enrolled in online education courses in the United States in 2018. Students with disabilities in higher education report that the benefits of online learning include less stress, greater flexibility, increased control of the learning process, and being able to access programs at any time.
Overall, being digitally accessible provides a much better student experience for students with disabilities, resulting in overall higher student satisfaction.
The risks and no reward of inaccessibility
The costs of higher education institutions being inaccessible are huge. In the mid-2010s, several universities were sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), forcing them to pay sizable damages and legal fees.
The highest-profile example of this is a 2014 lawsuit against Miami University and its online course provider, Edx.
The lawsuit was initiated by a complaint from Aleeha Dudley, a student who was blind, and required speech-to-text software and braille alternatives to access her course materials. She claimed the university violated the ADA when they failed to provide these accommodations. As a result, Miami University was required to provide proper digital accessibility. Edx was also held liable for discriminating against students with hearing loss by not providing captioning for the courses they offered online. They were compelled to make their courses accessible as part of the settlement. Similar fates were also experienced by UC Boulder and the University of Montana.
What is concerning is that many universities are still not accessible despite these high-profile lawsuits. A study in 2019 found that over two-thirds (71%) of university writing center websites had inaccessible content. This varied from 21% to 70% of all content on each website. Another study in 2020 found that 450 financial aid websites were largely inaccessible. Universities and other higher education institutes are taking on unnecessary liability by not being ADA-compliant.
Digital accessibility issues usually come to the forefront during “surge situations”, when large populations of students with disabilities need to access content all at once. With the COVID-19 pandemic being a significant example of a surge, it would be wise to get accessible as soon as possible. No one can predict the future, especially when it comes to technology, but if anything is certain it’s that digital accessibility will continue to become more standard for digital platforms.