How to Bounce Back from an OCR Complaint
Updated: January 4, 2018
In the world of higher education, North Carolina State University is known for their innovation in engineering, science, and technology. So as the digital age was emerging in the late 90s, NC State began to transition their content into the online world.
But while their libraries and classrooms were becoming more digital, much of the administrative paper work on campus was still on paper, until 1999 when three students with vision loss filed independent complaints with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
The lawsuit alleged the university discriminated against them based on their disability because they were unable to view information posted on paper such as bulletin board postings, dormitory notices, and paper mailings.
Through these complaints, NC State entered into a voluntary agreement to provide access to all university notices and course content comparable to all students, as well as implement assistive technology so all students on campus would have equal access to the same technologies and announcements.
By implementing the following steps (in no particular order) they got to work on greater campus accessibility.
Initially, NC State had one full time position dedicated to IT accessibility labeled as the Coordinator of Assistive and Information Technology. Then they realized the position would be more efficient if it were split into two: the IT Accessibility Coordinator and the Assistive Technology Coordinator.
The IT Accessibility Coordinator position at NC State is tasked with ensuring the accessibility of the software and hardware used on campus. This individual works with developers, faculty, content creators, and administrators to consult on the accessibility of projects, organize trainings, and set policies to ensure a barrier-free IT environment for everyone.
The Assistive Technology Coordinator is tasked with making sure students have access to campus technologies. Both the IT Accessibility Coordinator and the Assistive Technology Coordinator work together to keep the university in line with its accessibility initiatives and act as middlemen between all departments.
With the advent of new technologies in education, it’s important to keep IT policies up-to-date with all technologies present on campus to ensure people also understand accessibility regulation is applied to them, as well. One of the most effective ways to do this is by simplifying the language, so that all departments are on the same page. For example, at NC State, the language was changed to apply to all members of the community including teachers and staff, not just individuals who worked with accessibility.
They even took the regulations a step further and used proactive language so that teachers and staff could integrate accessibility initiatives into their workflow even if no current students had requests.
To help web developers work towards greater accessibility, NC State invested in an accessibility scanner. The scanner has helped ensure web developers can easily stay compliant with WCAG 2.0 and Section 508.
Before the restructuring at NC State, the Disability Services would report to the Division of Student Affairs, now they report to the provost office. This in turn has created executive level backing for NC State’s disability initiatives.
Funding is key when implementing an accessibility initiative. As Rebecca Sitton, Assistive Technology Coordinator at NC State says, “If you lose funding for positions, or you lose funding for technology, it could result in stagnis or just not the progression that you need to see with all these rapid advances in technology and how we’re delivering education now.”
After the complaint, the university provided additional assistive technology funds through their educational technology tuition fee. This included $90,000 for assistive technology purchases, a significant increase from the $30,000 the DSS originally received.
NC State also uses an interesting method for captioning. They have set aside an Education Technology Fund (ETF), which is financed by tuition fees from every student. Through this methodology the university has been able to acquire $60,000 a year for captioning. But since the funding is not enough, they have established an ETF committee that analyzes all material requested for captioning to justify the need.
Furthermore, NC State has locked standard rates for the university and has created a list of vendors that departments can work with to facilitate the workflow for accessibility.
To ensure all students have equal access to the materials in the library, NC State enhanced the assistive technology center in the campus library. The center includes JAWS workstations, a Kurzweil 1000 reading machine, and an additional CCTV. All technology is kept up-to-date.
First, came the amendment of the student grievance policy, which was changed to include disability-related complaints. Then, along with the grievance policy amendment, came the establishment of an ADA advisory committee to ensure disability-related input from students, faculty, and administrative units on campus is acknowledged.
And like a butterfly effect, other policies were also amended, such as requirements for course syllabi (which includes a disability statement directing students to the DSS for assistance), and a policy on discrimination, harassment, and retaliation complaint procedures.
As is the case with captioning in higher education, the main barrier to accessibility initiatives is often a general lack of awareness. Most faculty are simply not aware that they need to caption content or provide alternative formats for certain documents. The first step to mitigating this barrier is through greater awareness and faculty training. For example, you can begin integrating accessibility to faculty onboarding, or hold monthly accessibility workshops for more tenured faculty.
At NC State, they have created a comprehensive website with guidelines on creating accessible course materials. They are also developing an online faculty course on accessibility. In addition, they have partnered with the Distance Education Learning Technology department to develop a faculty workshop series that runs like an online learning group and offers faculty in-person workshops on major issues in the classroom, such as creating PDFs or captioning videos.
Overall, it takes time to achieve full compliance, but adoption often comes quickly once you build awareness. Even if you haven’t received an OCR complaint, taking a proactive approach will put your university in the forefront of greater accessibility. What you will quickly realize is that the whole community can benefit from accessibility initiatives.
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