Accessibility is about giving every student an equal chance at academic success. That means making online resources and information systems easy to use for students with disabilities.
When Congress amended the U.S. Rehabilitation Act to include Section 508 in 1998, it recognized the importance that digital technology had come to have in education. 20 years later, that role has grown larger than anyone could have imagined, placing a moral responsibility on educators to make web-based resources accessible and easy to use for students with disabilities.
Today, there are more stringent standards for accessibility than those set forth in Section 508, and schools that aren’t complying with them run the risk of serious legal repercussions. But before we get into what these standards are and how you can reach compliance, let’s get into why accessibility standards are so important in today’s learning environment.
Census data tells us that nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population has a disability of some kind, whether physical, visual, cognitive or hearing. By failing to make all aspects of your curricula accessible, you may be inadvertently putting a significant chunk of your student body at a distinct disadvantage, denying them the equal opportunity they are afforded under the law.
Meeting accessibility requirements isn’t just the right thing to do — there are plenty of advantages that your college or university stands to gain by making its web content as accessible as possible. First, there’s the fact that more accessible resources are good for all students, not just those with disabilities. As authors and web developers Rachel Andrew and Rob Turnbull point out, “anyone who has pushed a shopping cart out of a grocery store can attest to the value of automatic doors and ramps cut into curbs. Similarly, accessible web pages are often easier to read, easier to navigate, and faster to download.”
Second, people with disabilities represent a huge market, and solutions for making online resources more accessible to them are proliferating and becoming more affordable all the time. Research firm Gartnerhighlighted this opportunity in 2013, arguing that “the assistive technology market itself is vast, but the potential market size is considerably larger when devices designed as assistive technology can have applications for the mass market.” It’s now expected that the assistive technologies market will surpass $26 billion by 2024. A robust market means competitive pricing and more options for educators.
Finally, failure to comply not just with Section 508 standards, but more stringent ones like the WCAG 2.0 can have serious legal consequences for your school or institution. As we’ll see, students with disabilities are taking their schools to court over inaccessible resources, and courts are consistently finding that meeting the requirements of the Rehabilitation Act simply isn’t enough.
Schools like Miami University in Ohio, Atlantic Cape Cod Community College, and Harvard University have all been taken to court by students demanding that they hold themselves to higher standards than Section 508, like those set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. And the results of these suits are making it very clear that the U.S. Department of Justice is far more likely to side with students than with the schools that are failing them.
For example, when the University of California (UC) Berkeley was sued by a student over inaccessible web resources, the Department of Justice investigated the school and ruled that it was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rather than making its web resources more accessible, however, the university decided to simply remove hundreds of thousands of lectures from its website, explaining that making those resources meet the DOJ’s standards for accessibility would be too expensive.
UC Berkeley, made the mistake of worsening their situation by further alienating their students with disabilities, signaling that they don’t consider equal access to education worth paying for. As a blog post for Essential Accessibility says, “though there have been no statements from the DOJ, addressing web accessibility in higher education, the writing is on the wall: if you are not WCAG 2.0 compliant, and are taken to court, the chances of winning are negligible.” For the sake of not just their pocketbooks, but their reputations, schools must make a strong effort to meet the highest level of compliance.
Want to learn more about what it takes to meet accessibility standards for web-based information systems? Check out our cheat sheet to achieving accessibility here! You can also check out Hoonuit’s eLearning tools and content, all of which are compliant with 508 and WCAG 2.0 and offer educators resources to craft or curate accessible instructional materials.