5 Questions for Universities That Resolved Legal Web Accessibility Complaints
Updated: June 3, 2019
No university wants to get into legal trouble, especially when it involves disability discrimination. That’s an unfortunate reality for institutions of higher ed that receive legal complaints about the accessibility of online course materials, such as the lawsuit Harvard and MIT currently face.
To help other colleges avoid that fate, we hosted a webinar with representatives from three universities which received legal complaints about inaccessible IT. Sheryl Burgstahler of University of Washington, Dan Jones of University of Colorado Boulder, and Janet Sedgley of University of Montana shared their stories, how they dealt with the complaint, and how to ensure a more accessible learning environment for the future.
Watch the full webinar here:
Here are the highlights from the Q&A session with the presenters:
How do you recommend documenting campus IT accessibility?
SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: I recommend making your own tracking document for your institution.
First, make a list of what would be the ideal state of your campus as far as IT accessibility. Where do you want to be? Make a list. Brainstorm.
Then compare that to where you are in each particular step. Do a gap analysis. Is this where we really want to be? How have we progressed?
You should also keep an eye on your technology procurement. For an internal accessibility audit, make a list of all the software that is procured and deployed from our central services. Then start prioritizing which are most important and what your strategy is going to be for ensuring they’re accessible. Identify one person to take any further steps toward the accessibility of a given product.
Could you share your thoughts, hopes, and concerns about efforts to create guidelines for accessible instructional materials at the federal level by a legislation like the proposed Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education Act?
SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: There are standards or guidelines potentially to be developed. Even the Section 508 Standards for IT Accessibility are in the process of being updated.
“The goal is to include accessibility in their courses, not to necessarily eliminate accommodation requests, but to minimize them.”
Director of Accessible Technology Services at University of Washington
Those standards, by the way, apply only to the federal government that’s making purchase of IT. But some campuses nationwide have adopted the Section 508 standards as their standards. So that’s where they relate to higher education.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 level AA are a great standard for reference. For one thing, those guidelines are international. There’s a lot of buy-in. And the W3C is equipped to refresh them more efficiently than the Section 508 standards, because the federal government makes it more difficult to be agile.
What I try to do for our campus is to create some guidelines for getting started. Because it’s really easy to get too deep into the technology and lose people. If they get overwhelmed, people use that as an excuse to not do anything.
That’s why I’ve created a document of twenty tips for faculty to make online courses more accessible. It gives faculty members something very concrete to do.
Is it everything that they might do?
Would I ever call it ADA compliant?
Is it in the spirit of the ADA?
The list includes things like structuring headings in PDF documents, websites, or Word documents, how to caption videos and so forth. But there are a lot of things that faculty members can do in their online learning that will make their course more accessible.
The goal is to include accessibility in their courses, not to necessarily eliminate accommodation requests, but to minimize them.
If they’re teaching a course and they’ve managed to get 80% of their videos captioned, then if they have a student who’s deaf in the class, the Disability Services Office will quickly caption the other 20%. But if they don’t caption any of their videos, then that’s going to be a much bigger job.
“We in higher ed have an obligation to make sure that our students have an understanding of web accessibility, so when they go out to the private sector, they know what they need to do.”
Chief Digital Accessibility Officer at University of Colorado Boulder
So the goal should always be to minimize accommodations, as I see it, but to provide guidelines to your various stakeholder groups that are appropriate for their role at the university. The guidelines we provide to webmasters are much more technical than those that we provide to faculty, for example.
DAN JONES: That’s a key point: translating something like WCAG to actionable things for individual roles, whether it’s faculty or web developers.
I think we in higher ed have an obligation to make sure that our students have an understanding of web accessibility, so when they go out to the private sector, they know what they need to do.
What was the nature of the complaints to the OCR and DOJ?
DAN JONES: The letter we received from the DOJ specifically cited that Google Apps, which was used as part of course assignments, was not accessible. The software we were using for placement exams was another example. The timeliness of accommodations was a third one.
SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: And if you look at our IT accessibility website, we have links to all of the complaints and the resolutions that we’re aware of, about 16 schools and school districts.
JANET SEDGLEY: You can see the accessibility resolution for University of Montana on our website, too. It mentioned inaccessible documents, lack of captioning, inaccessible online content and content at the library, and even inaccessible banking machines for student refunds.
At any of your institutions, was the LMS part of the challenge to improve compliance?
DAN JONES: Our LMS Desire2Learn was a specific item in the complaint. And there are two aspects to it.
First, there’s the platform, which we don’t actually control. So we had to go back and make sure that we get proper contract language to hold the vendor accountable.
Then, in addition to making sure the LMS platform is accessible, we had to make sure faculty uploaded accessible content to the LMS.
JANET SEDGLEY: Our online learning department worked with our LMS system to provide testing. We sent examples back and worked collaboratively to show them what wasn’t working. That approach has worked to improve the LMS in general. But the content’s always still the issue.
SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: One thing to remember is that it’s not a one-time deal.
“We like to include in our vendor language, when we’re making a purchase, that they will continue to work with us to maximize the accessibility of their product.”
Director of Accessible Technology Services at University of Washington
We purchased Canvas years ago in part because it was very accessible. We considered it, at that time, the best of the learning management systems. And there were other things that we considered, but we are very pleased that we got involved in the purchase so we could deal with accessibility.
A few years later, we noticed that a lot of the accessibility features seemed to be broken. We found out that the person that was doing accessibility at Instructure had moved on, so they were behind schedule at getting the next version out for those features. They kind of dropped the idea of accessibility and went into “well, we’ll deal with that later” mode.
So we became very active again because we had not only standardized on Canvas at the University of Washington, but encouraged all post-secondary schools in the whole state to use Canvas. We’ve continued to work with them directly and helped them with very specific guidelines in how to make Canvas more accessible.
Working directly with the vendors can help. But also, remember, once you make that choice in procurement, it will be ongoing. So we like to include in our vendor language, when we’re making a purchase, that they will continue to work with us to maximize the accessibility of their product.
Is closed captioning in higher education a universal requirement?
SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: Section 508 does require closed captioning on video. But remember, those standards are only for the federal government.
So if the federal government is purchasing videos or creating videos, under most situations, they have to be captioned. Your university or college only has to comply with those standards if you have adopted Section 508 standards — or if Section 508 has been adopted by your state’s laws.
First of all, the ideal situation is that all of our videos are captioned, not just for students who are deaf, but as a best practice for instruction. But where you assume the most risk as far as captions is if you put anything out in a public forum.
For instance, if your president is giving a lecture and you put it up on the president’s website and make it available to everyone, ‘everyone’ includes people who are deaf on and off campus. So you have to caption that. It’s really clear.
So any of your public videos or MOOCs that are available to everyone, you have to have those captioned. But ideally, you’ll put captions on your videos for all of your classes.
JANET SEDGLEY: We found at the University of Montana that so many people appreciate the captioning. But I do think at some point that it’s just going to become so common that it doesn’t become as much a struggle except for freshly minted videos made by the professors at the university.
SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: And sometimes it’s a matter of training. You’ve probably all seen YouTube videos that have the computer-generated captioning. They can actually be very humorous because it’s generated by a computer. A lot of people just don’t know that the owner of that video can go into YouTube and edit those captions.
We need to remind our faculty that they actually can do that. And they’re usually more than happy to it because they don’t want silly captions on their videos either.
To learn more about making your course content accessible and compliant with the law, download:
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