Accessibility Laws for Online Learning Content
Updated: March 2, 2021
The two major disability rights laws in the United States — the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act — were passed decades ago, long before the proliferation of the internet as we know it today.
However, these laws were written broadly with the intention that they would keep pace with evolving technology and our continued reliance on it.
In the world of education, where classrooms are becoming increasingly digital, these laws are meant to protect the rights of learners with disabilities that affect computer use.
This means that online learning content, like educational videos one might find in a traditional college course or a massive open online course (MOOC), must include accessibility features for students with disabilities.
Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires places of public accommodation (commercial entities) to be accessible. Under Title III, no individual may be discriminated against on the basis of disability with regards to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations of any “place of public accommodation” by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.
While the ADA does not specifically mention technical requirements for websites to be accessible, it does call for “auxiliary aids” in communication. Examples of auxiliary aids are closed captions (for deaf people) and audio description (for blind people) on videos.
Are websites places of public accommodation? That question is the subject of numerous court cases involving the ADA and inaccessible websites, including against MIT and Harvard for failing to caption videos used in their online courses. More and more judges and legal experts are siding with web accessibility advocates, though, and agree that websites are places of public-accommodation and should not discriminate against people with disabilities.
To avoid litigation, any public-facing websites that act as an interface for taking courses, such as Coursera or Future Learn, should make their websites and multimedia content fully accessible.
Section 504 Requirements
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is considered the first law to declare civil rights for people with disabilities. This section of the Act declares that:
- “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States […] shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service.”
This law applies to any federally funded program, or any entity, including organizations, and public or private universities, that receive federal funding. So, if your organization or institution receives any kind of federal funding (such as student aid or research grants) it could be considered a federally funded program and must ensure it does not exclude anyone with a disability from any program or activity, including participation in online learning activities.
In the ongoing lawsuit against Harvard University and MIT, the National Association of the Deaf argued that the schools violated Section 504 by not making their online learning content accessible to people who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Section 508 Requirements
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires electronic communications and information technologies, such as websites, email, or web documents, to be accessible. For video content, closed captions are a specific requirement mentioned in Section 508.
Recently, Section 508 went through a WCAG 2.0 Level A and Level AA refresh to update the law’s language for today’s technology. Section 508 now requires WCAG 2.0 Level A and Level AA conformance for websites.
This law only applies to federal programs. However, many US States and organizations have laws (known as “mini 508s”) that reference section 508. So, if any institutions or organizations reside in one of those states or have organizational policies that reference Section 508, any MOOCs or other online learning content must be fully accessible or have auxiliary aids for people with sensory disabilities.
Not sure if your online content is accessible? Take this quiz to find out!
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