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What Happens When the DOJ Comes Knocking? UC Boulder’s Cautionary Tale

  • University of Montana campus

    Given the flurry of web accessibility lawsuits that institutes of higher education are facing today, universities need to be nimble in resolving accessibility complaints.

    University of Colorado Boulder (UCB) found itself subject to investigation by the Department of Justice a few years ago due to ineffective accommodations for students with disabilities.

    UCB’s Chief Digital Accessibility Officer, Dan Jones, told the full story of how the DOJ complaint was handled and ultimately resolved. Dan presented UCB’s cautionary tale along with University of Montana’s Janet Sedgley in the webinar When the DOJ/OCR Makes a Visit: Lessons Learned in Resolving Complaints About Inaccessible IT.

    Watch the webinar in full:

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    Timeline of the UCB DOJ Complaint

    Even before the DOJ complaint came in, UCB knew they had a problem.

    The UC Boulder campus had already completed an accessibility study in 2013. What was missing was an agreement on who owned the problem, who would respond to it, and whether an executive leader would really champion the effort.

    Without clear administrative support and direction, sufficient action was not taken.

    The Department of Justice sent the UCB an initial notice of intent to investigate in the spring of 2014. In response to that, the campus formed a project team to not only respond specifically to the letter, but also to start to address the problems and implement what was in the 2013 accessibility audit.

    That effort spanned across campus, including folks from IT, disability services, procurement, faculty, and legal counsel.

    The project team provided an initial response: a transparent disclosure of the accessibility audit along with intentions for action. Once the plan was in place, the team updated the DOJ on progress regularly.

    UCB didn’t get a formal response from the Department of Justice until May of 2015, when they sent a letter saying they were choosing to close their investigation. As a result, the university did not actually sign a resolution agreement.

    Dan Jones emphasized that that didn’t cause UCB to flag in their commitment to sustaining accessibility:

    To be clear, even though we chose to take their closing the investigation as a good sign about the direction we were, the Department of Justice did make it clear that they could come back. The fact that they were closing their investigation didn’t mean that they were necessarily going away forever.

    Why the UCB Response Worked

    The ad hoc project team UCB formed in response to the DOJ complaint followed their standard IT practices for project management. In retrospect, that was very important and helped give structure to their response.

    They ended up forming four sub-projects to tackle the complaint.

    Accessibility Policy

    The first project was to create an official accessibility policy and exceptions process. They developed a formal, high-level campus policy regarding digital accessibility. As part of that policy, Dan Jones’s role of Chief Digital Accessibility Officer was created. From there, they fleshed out the roles and responsibilities for the program in order to get to their goals.

    Next, the team established an entity called the Accessibility Review Board that created more detailed standards.

    For example, they’re responsible for crafting the specific language regarding accessibility in a class syllabus. They also set specific contractual requirements for procuring accessible course materials or software.

    The Board could also grant exceptions, but only after clearly defining what’s expected for an exception. Plus, exceptions have to be reviewed every year and come with a remediation plan.

    Another part of the exception is that they have to have a plan in place to handle an accommodation request. That was one of the concerns in the original complaint was that too often, someone would request an accommodation and the department didn’t really know what they needed to do to provide support. By the time they were able to provide that accommodation, it was too late for the student to really be successful in that class.

    Applications & Tech Services Remediation

    This subgroup of the team dealt with the specifics of the DOJ complaint concerning accessibility issues in Google Apps for Education, Desire2Learn, our student portal, which is Oracle PeopleSoft.

    This team also created UCB’s Usability and Accessibility Lab, a testing ground for applications and their compatibility with assistive technology. Some of the students that work in the lab are blind or hard of hearing.

    Accessibility Support Services

    To understand more broadly than just what was listed in the DOJ complaint, the team reached out to the community for more information on people’s experiences.

    A campus-wide survey of all students and staff sought to identify any other issues. This informed new changes as the team developed an ongoing program.

    Communication & Documentation

    Transparency throughout the process was essential — both externally to the Department of Justice and internally on campus.

    The chancellor wrote a letter to the whole campus announcing the DOJ complaint. Then as the team was developing the accessibility policy, they shared drafts publicly and held multiple town halls to solicit feedback.

    Once finalized, UCB made that accessibility information widely available. And it’s linked to from every web page on their site.

    5 Lessons Learned

    The five most important lessons learned from the UCB’s ordeal with the DOJ are:

    1. Leadership must be committed to accessibility
    2. Maintain transparency externally and internally
    3. Actively engage with community members who have a disability. They know the problem better than anyone.
    4. Leverage third-party contacts for expertise (ex., inviting the National Federation of the Blind to audit the university for accessibility compliance)
    5. Keep the conversation going with the community, and continue efforts to raise awareness of the accessibility policy and services on campus

    To learn more about making your course content accessible and compliant with disability law, download:

    5 Web Accessibility Resources Every College Needs

    5 Web Accessibility Resources Every College Needs

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