If You Want to Get Accessibility Right at Your School, Read Lawsuit Settlements

January 30, 2017 BY PATRICK LOFTUS
Updated: June 3, 2019


Federal accessibility lawsuits are a pain for any institution. The silver lining, however, is in all of the legal literature stemming from an eventual ruling or settlement.

From “Dear Colleague” letters to post-trial documents, there are a lot of resources available for schools that want to make sure they’re getting accessibility right in the eyes of the government. Documents stemming from accessibility lawsuits at other institutions can reveal, in great detail, what the Department of Justice (DOJ) or Office for Civil Rights (OCR) consider proper implementation and adherence to federal accessibility law.

University of Washington

At one school, paying attention to the results of these lawsuits informs the framework of their accessibility policy. Sheryl Burgstahler and Terrill Thompson, who work in Disability Resources at the University of Washington led a recent webinar in which they discussed these lessons learned by reading DOJ and OCR resolutions at other institutions:

  1. Conduct an IT audit, develop a corrective action strategy, and address the problems identified
  2. Set institutional standards relating to accessible technology and create a method to monitor compliance
  3. Provide training and education to anyone involved with creating or procuring IT or creating content
  4. Institute procedures for addressing accessibility as a requirement within the procurement process
  5. Provide and publicize a mechanism by which students, faculty, staff, and members of the public can report access barriers

Conducting an Audit

Conducting a full, internal accessibility audit or inventory of technology is the best way to identify user problems you would otherwise run into later.

[Take a look at our list of web accessibility resources if you need help planning an audit, or are looking for tools to help test your website, apps, and other IT.]

Setting Standards at Your Institution

In 2016, the DOJ sent a letter to UC Berkeley about complaints related to inaccessible tech on campus. The letter explains that while UC Berkeley has an excellent accessibility policy, the reason they were getting complaints was because they were failing to properly monitor and enforce it.

Setting detailed institutional standards (perhaps in the form of a web page, physical handbook, or both) is crucial to making sure that all faculty and staff know exactly what they need to in order to ensure the technology they procure, use, and share is in full compliance with the school’s accessibility policy. These standards should also be accompanied by best practices and guidelines that explain how to make IT accessible for students with disabilities.

After these standards are disseminated, there will be a much weaker excuse for anyone’s failure to comply with the institution’s accessibility policy.

Educate Those Who Procure IT and Create Content

You can’t expect professors, administrators, and others at your institution to follow your guidelines on accessibility if they don’t spend some time learning about them.

Training videos, webinars, in-person seminars, and other engaging, interactive methods will work best because they encourage people to focus on the subject. Simply sending out an email containing your accessibility policy and guidelines titled “Read This” is also helpful, but will probably not work that well on its own.

Address Accessibility in the Procurement Process

Today, food labeled “organic” is in nearly every grocery store because a few years ago consumers began demanding it. And the same thing is happening with accessibility.

Many vendors that sell to the higher education market are building accessibility into their own companies and products because universities are asking for it more and more. However, it’s still important to vet your vendors with a close eye towards accessibility.

Make sure that you are formally requiring your procurement decision-makers to evaluate products for accessibility compliance before making a purchase. This step could take the form of an official contract that both parties have to sign, running each purchase by a compliance officer, or a combination of both.

Make Reporting Issues Easy

This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but your school needs to have a really easy and readily available method for reporting accessibility issues to the IT or disability services department.

Why? Because it’s better that they try and resolve the issue with your department before they consider filing a complaint with the government.

Put posters all over campus, send out emails, run a constant social media campaign — do whatever you feel is necessary for your institution to funnel complaints to the right people so that the issue can be resolved quickly.

To learn more about how the University of Washington built their accessibility policy from lawsuit rulings at other institution, watch the full webinar below:

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