How Do You Handle a Web Accessibility Complaint from the Office for Civil Rights?
Updated: June 3, 2019
What happens if your college or university is accused of disability discrimination by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights?
Ask the University of Montana. They’ve been there.
Janet Sedgley, Manager of Accessible Technology Services at University of Montana, tells all in the 3Play Media webinar When the DOJ/OCR Makes a Visit: Lessons Learned in Resolving Complaints About Inaccessible IT.
In May of 2012, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) filed a complaint against the University of Montana. The federal agency got involved in response to complaints by the Alliance for Disability and Students at the University of Montana (ADSUM) that blind students could not access most of their online coursework.
At the time, 1,121 students were registered with UM’s Disability Services for Students office. And since classes involved 75-100% online components, web accessibility for coursework was essential, yet woefully insufficient.
The ADSUM had tried for at least five years to pressure UM administrators to take action, but progress was slow and ultimately inadequate.
That’s when the OCR stepped in.
The OCR complaint cited the following web accessibility violations:
- Inaccessible class assignments and materials on the LMS, Moodle.
- Inaccessible live chat and discussion board functions in Moodle.
- Images lacking alternative text descriptions.
- Inaccessible PDFs.
- Flash videos, which are largely inaccessible.
- Videos that lacked audio description, transcripts, and closed captions.
- Inaccessible library database materials.
- Inaccessible course registration through a website, Cyber Bear.
UM took the OCR complaint seriously and worked toward a resolution. They formed an EITA task force to draft a new accessible IT policy that would instantly become official campus policy. Then, they would be responsible for making the institution compliant with the policy.
Janet led the EITA team, which comprised staff from the Online Education Department, IT, Disability Services for Students, the library, an ADA specialist, and a slew of technicians.
By March, 2014, UM reached a resolution with the OCR that promised to:
- Include accessibility requirements in all IT procurement
- Survey current and former UM students about their experiences with inaccessible IT
- Perform an accessibility audit of campus IT
- Create a remediation plan from the results of that audit
- Ensure full document and web accessibility by the end of 2014
- Report regularly to the OCR with updates on progress
For the most part, UM delivered on these promises — except for providing audio descriptions for video. Janet concedes that “we haven’t quite brought that onto campus very much.”
One interesting finding from the student survey was that many of the complaints of inaccessibility were due to the students not understanding or being unaware of the available accessible options.
“We realized we just hadn’t educated them well about how to do certain things. So that was kind of an eye opener.”
“We realized we just hadn’t educated them well about how to do certain things. So that was kind of an eye opener,” said Janet.
Once the remediation plan got rolling, Janet mentioned that UM started to take further steps that weren’t in the original plan, such as the creation of the Accessible Technology Services department within IT.
Janet currently heads up the ATS department, which includes members from the DSS who perform document remediation and assistive technology support.
While the OCR complaint focused on web accessibility for blind students, UM made sure that deaf and hard-of-hearing students could get closed captions for educational video. The ATS department handles requests for captioning content, but it also supplies information for faculty or staff to transcribe and caption videos themselves.
What Helped University of Montana Respond Successfully
Janet emphasizes that the rapid, sweeping response to UM’s OCR complaint could not have happened without lots of interdepartmental teamwork. In order to succeed in making content accessible, the staff and faculty has to work closely with one another, with legal counsel, and with technology vendors.
UM crafted a clear message of commitment to accessibility and sprinkled links to the accessibility website all over the main university site. They wanted it to be available from just about any UM webpage — there was no missing it.
Part of implementing the new accessibility policy meant having a lot of one-on-one conversations with people all over campus. It was very beneficial to nurture relationships between the Assistive Tech Services folks and faculty.
Building on Existing Processes
The IT department already offered mini-courses and workshops on technical topics, so it made sense to add one on accessibility.
Accessibility support was adopted by existing support infrastructure, like the library help desk, IT support, etc. It became a major component of any software procurement process.
UM created a listserv for campus called Access Partners, which covers a number of different accessibility topics, sends out information and keeps people generally informed. They offer EITA certification for staff and faculty. Those who get the certification are listed on a website as proof that they’re being proactive about embracing accessibility.
In 2014, UM brought in a new CIO who was a strong advocate for the EITA task force. That kind of top-down administrative support was essential to the new accessibility policy’s widespread adoption and legitimacy. The final resolution was signed by University of Montana President.
To learn more about making your course content accessible and compliant with disability law, download:
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