Students with disabilities are dependent on web accessibility in education more than ever. In an increasingly remote world, hosting education barrier-free web content that is inclusive for all users no matter their ability, temporary disability, or situation has become an ethical imperative and essential to ensure everyone has equal access to quality educational opportunities.

But accessibility is more than a suggestion or good advice. Just like businesses and other government institutions, schools, colleges, and universities are required by federal anti-discrimination laws to assure there are reasonable accommodations made so they can access resources, in person or online. There is a growing list of case law that establishes the clear expectation for online educational material to be accessible as well as the severe liability for those that fail to do so.

Academic Web Accessibility Removes Barriers

The bigger and more established an academic institution, the more legal exposure it is exposed to for publishing resources with accessibility violations. Both public and private educational institutions have had to subject themselves to court-enforceable consent degrees to assure the content is web-accessible. They’ve also had to pay out millions in plaintiff attorneys’ fees and fines for violations.

Web accessibility standards establish that students should have access to digital educational resources, including:

  • Online course videos that are outfitted with scripts and closed captioning American Sign Language (ASL) translation, for those with hearing loss or who are deaf.
  • All images and graphics have robust alt-text descriptions
  • Websites, portals, and apps that are navigable through keystrokes or assistive tools.
  • Content free from flashing graphics.
  • Properly contrasted webpage color schemes.
  • Text that is readable and understandable.

The presence of any of these violations on an institutional website exposes it to potential litigation. Maintaining them also means your organization is inadvertently creating restrictive barriers that block out people with disabilities.

Laws Regarding Web Accessibility in Education

You would think that because schools and higher education institutions are universally required to provide physical accessibility features, such as ramps and elevators, they would be prepared to make those same steps for their digital resources. But that has not been the case. Not only have laws had to be adjusted to account for new tech, but compliance and enforcement are complex and heavy lifting.

The equal access rights to inclusive online educational resources can be established through Section 504 or Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or through Title II or Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. One of the main issues is that all of these laws were enacted before the digital explosion that sparked in the mid-90s.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are the governing agencies assigned to enforce these laws. The Web Accessibility Content Guidelines (WCAG) established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the standard cited by courts and in DOJ enforcement actions, and the codified standard for Section 508.

Section 504 and Harvard College

Regarded as the first law in the U.S. to establish civil rights for those with disabilities, Section 504 forbids those with disabilities from being excluded from any program or activity receiving federal funding or conducted by an executive agency.

This statute has many wide-reaching implications, including that any public or private universities receiving federal monies, such as research grants or tuition aid for students, are forbidden.

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) accused Harvard College of violating 504 and Title III by failing to provide captioning for all online audio and video content. That lawsuit was resolved in November 2019 in a consent decree that required Harvard to include captioning on all public-facing video and audio content. They also were on the hook to cover legal fees of $1.575 million in plaintiff attorney costs.

Section 508 and South Carolina Technical College System

Section 508 is a law that requires federal agencies to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to digital resources to those who have disabilities unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency.  However, the 508 regulations do not directly apply to educational institutions.

Because of rules laid out in the Assistive Technology Act, states that do not guarantee Section 508 compliance in all public services, including K-12 schools and universities, are not eligible for specific grant programs. Originally, 508 regulations laid out its standards for web accessibility. However, in 2018 the section was refreshed to adopt the WCAG 2.0 AA Level as the federal standard.

In 2013, OCR initiated a review of the South Carolina Technical College System (SCTCS) for not adhering to Section 508 standards. The school independently chose to adopt Section 508 standards systemwide as a means to ensure accessibility. In its investigation, OCR found that SCTCS was not complying with 508. Violations included inaccessible PDFs, insufficient alt texts on images, unlabeled form fields, lack of accessibility features within course management portals, and campus calendars inoperable with screen readers.

Title II and Miami University in Oxford

Similar to the requirements in Section 504, Title II of the ADA extends civil protections for people with disabilities in government settings, mandating that any publicly funded entity, service, or program at the state or municipal levels not discriminate against citizens because of a disability. This includes public schools, colleges, and universities.

The DOJ issued guidance on web accessibility for both Title II and Title III in March 2022 confirming signaling its position that the ADA is applicable to websites. However, that guidance did provide any clear standards for the institutions to aim for. However, it appears specific standards for governmental organizations are on their way down the pipeline.

The DOJ announced in July 2022 that it plans to publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to amend its Title II ADA regulation to provide technical standards to assist public entities in complying with their existing obligations to make their websites accessible to individuals with disabilities. That NPRM is due by April 2023.

In 2016, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, entered into a consent agreement with the DOJ after being sued by Aleeha Dudley, a student who was blind. Dudley claimed the university used technologies in its programs that were inaccessible for those who had vision, hearing, and learning disabilities. Miami University agreed to undergo a comprehensive overhaul of its digital resources, hire a web accessibility coordinator to oversee compliance, and pay a total of $25,000 to affected students.

Title III and Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Private schools are also subject to web accessibility laws. Many private schools and universities are required to provide accessibility measures under Section 504 and Title II because they accept federal funds for financial aid. However, even if an institution is not receiving federal monies, they are subject to the ADA because of Title III.

Under Title III, private universities and schools are considered places of “public accommodation,” along with other public-facing businesses, including restaurants and entertainment venues. These organizations are prohibited from discriminating against people based on their disabilities and are expected to provide equal access to goods, services, facilities, and privileges.

The ADA defines public accommodation as a facility operated by a private entity whose operations affect commerce. Nurseries, elementary and secondary schools, and undergraduate and postgraduate colleges are all included as examples of private entities. Thus, regardless of if a college or academic entity is public or private, the ADA prohibits discrimination against an individual with a disability.

In February 2020, NAD reached a landmark settlement agreement with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a private university, over online videos and audio recordings that lacked captions or used inaccurate script text in violation of Title III. During the litigation, MIT filed a motion to dismiss the case. In response, the court ruled MIT was not only covered under Title III but that the statute covered MIT’s online content. They were ordered to cover court costs of $1.05 million.

Web Accessibility Compliance Essential for Education

Not only does compliance with web accessibility standards help mitigate legal risk and liability for private and public education entities, but it also helps these organizations fulfill their vision. Web accessibility better equips the organization to accomplish its mission and deliver on promises to students.

Leading educational institutions, such as Cornell University and New York Law School, trust UserWay with their accessibility needs so they can focus on their core mission of educating students and contributing to the broader academic community.