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ADA Lawsuit Settlement Compels Miami University to Make Digital Content Accessible

  • University of Miami Ohio campus

    An Ohio District Court Judge just published a consent decree on a case that reinforces the growing trend of ADA web accessibility lawsuits in higher education.

    Judge Susan J. Dlott’s consent decree on Dudley v. Miami University finalizes the settlement in a years-long disability discrimination lawsuit.

    The decree demands that the university take aggressive steps to remediate their digital content to make it accessible to people with disabilities.

    The Case

    The case began in January 2014 when blind student Aleeha Dudley filed a complaint against Miami University, Ohio. Dudley requires the use of speech-to-text software and Braille alternatives to access her course materials, but the university did not adequately accommodate her needs.

    The National Federation of the Blind filed a joint complaint shortly thereafter.

    The plaintiffs alleged that the university violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

    Title II of the ADA protects the rights of people with disabilities by requiring state and local entities to provide reasonable accommodations for equal access to public services.

    Because Miami University is a state university, it is subject to Title II, and providing timely Braille materials and assistive technology-compatible content would be considered ‘reasonable accommodations’ for a blind student.

    Litigation continued into 2015, and in May 2015 the US Department of Justice (DOJ) intervened.

    The DOJ emphasized that Miami University needs to make its website, digital course materials, textbooks, and learning management systems accessible to students with vision, hearing, or learning disabilities.

    Vanita Gupta, an attorney for the DOJ’s Civil Rights division, issued this statement at the time:

    “Education is said to be the great equalizer of American society, and educational technologies hold great promise to make this a reality. However, students with disabilities continue to encounter an impenetrable glass ceiling of opportunity when schools fail to comply with the ADA.”

    Students with disabilities continue to encounter an impenetrable glass ceiling of opportunity when schools fail to comply with the ADA

    Vanita Gupta
    Principal Deputy Asst. Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division, DOJ

    On January 15, 2016, Miami University agreed to settle the case. Since then, the terms of the settlement have been in negotiations, but this consent decree makes them official.

    The Decree

    A consent decree does not assign liability to the defendant, but instead outlines the steps they agree to take to remedy the situation.

    The decree acknowledges the charges brought against Miami University, but asserts that Miami denies any wrongdoing. It states that Miami “remains committed to providing equal opportunity for the education of qualified individuals with disabilities, and that it has already undertaken many of the requirements of this Consent Decree.”

    There are 18 parts to the resolution:

    1. General Non-Discrimination Obligations
    2. Web Content Accessibility
    3. LMS Accessibility
    4. Textbook and Course Material Accessibility
    5. Student Organization Website Accessibility
    6. Inaccessible Digital File Conversion Submission Page
    7. Accessible Technology Policy
    8. Accessible Technology Coordinator
    9. University Accessibility Committee
    10. Accessible Technology Training
    11. Accessible Educational Resources Portal
    12. Accessible IT Procurement Policy
    13. Web Accessibility Testing
    14. Hire an Accessible Technology Specialist
    15. Grievance Process
    16. Evaluation of Student Disability Services
    17. Undue Burden and Fundamental Alteration Clause
    18. Personal Devices and Services

    Read the full text of the Dudley v. Miami University consent decree

    Essentially, the decree outlines all the ways in which the university plans to ensure that web content and services are fully accessible to students with disabilities. It establishes deadlines to meet certain milestones, requirements for testing and auditing web accessibility, and an overall proactive approach to accessible design.

    What This Means for Miami University

    Miami University agrees to the terms of the decree and will meets its obligations within the specified timeframe — anywhere from 2 to 16 months for a given requirement.

    It will continue to report to and cooperate with the Department of Justice to ensure the decree’s enforcement.

    Miami U’s fate is similar to that of UC Boulder and University of Montana when they faced scrutiny from the DOJ.

    What This Means for Higher Education

    The resolution of the Dudley v. Miami University lawsuit could foreshadow the outcome of another high-profile web accessibility case in higher education, NAD v. Harvard, MIT.

    The NAD v. Harvard, MIT case alleges violations of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act for failing to make Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) content accessible to disabled members of the public. It also cites inadequate accommodations for students, such as use of automatic YouTube captioning for videos used in coursework.

    Harvard and MIT filed motion to dismiss the case (which was denied), and the DOJ intervened to voice their support of the National Association of the Deaf.

    While Harvard and MIT continue to fight their lawsuit, settlements like Dudley v. Miami University provide a mounting precedent for resolutions to web accessibility disputes in education.

    Download the brief: How the ADA Impacts Video Accessibility

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