Who is Responsible for Making Course Content Accessible?

November 16, 2015 BY EMILY GRIFFIN
Updated: June 3, 2019

In an age when Ivy League Universities are getting sued for insufficient captioning on online videos, colleges across the country are scrambling to get up to speed on accessible web design practices.

Unfortunately, it’s common for faculty or entire departments to deny their role in accessible design and disability accommodation. Who’s to blame for an uncaptioned video or an unlabeled image? And who needs to fix them?

It truly takes a village to make an entire institution’s web presence accessible to students with disabilities.

In a recent webinar on accessible design, Implementing Universal and Inclusive Design for Online Learning Accessibility, University of Washington’s Director of Accessible Technology Services, Sheryl Burgstahler, spoke to the issue of responsibility.

Watch the recording of the webinar starting from 56:04 (see video below), or read on for summaries of Sheryl’s responses.

Who is responsible for making course content accessible?

SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: On our campus, the responsibility falls with whomever is creating those documents, whether they are a faculty member or staff.

We have two forces that are pushing the agenda forward. One is the Disability Resources for Students Office, which does all the captioning and converting of PDF files for students with disabilities. That’s the accommodation side of things.

Then there are other units on campus that are proactive, but the primary one is mine, Accessible Technology Services. We promote captioning as a best practice for instruction, not just as an accommodation. We have a dedicated advocate who promotes captioning on a regular basis. If people ask us for instructions on making their PDFs accessible, we provide that training.

Overall, we provide the proactive part of campus accessibility, and the Disability Services Office provides the reactive part.

On our campus a lot of people say, ‘well, that’s not my responsibility.’ There is a lot of finger pointing. When really, it’s all of our responsibility.

So who’s responsible?

The University.


If an Office of Civil Rights complaint came, it would be to the University itself.

On our campus a lot of people say, ‘well, that’s not my responsibility.’ There is a lot of finger pointing. When really, it’s all of our responsibility.

Is it true that accessibility law suits or complaints name the specific faculty person along with the college?

SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: I don’t believe they mention any specifics.

Now, I’m not a legal expert on this, but generally they’re worded as a report of the student’s failed accommodations.

It chronicles the history of their complaints about different websites or courses not being accessible to them, and the university or the college repeatedly putting them off and not dealing with the issue.

That’s why I say the first step of defense is to have a really good, responsive system for accommodation requests. Just make sure that happens. The law says that has to happen.

You need a clear policy about IT accessibility. Then you need to implement a plan for making those online courses gradually more accessible. For instance, you might plan to ensure all new courses are accessible, and then remediate a course when it is updated.

What makes you a target for an accessibility lawsuit?

The National Federation of the Blind has publicly said that it’s mainly targeting institutions that are just not making any effort. The ones that don’t have an accessibility plan.

So make a plan, make it public, and then execute it.

You don’t need to be perfect. Is the University of Washington perfectly accessible? No, but if you look at our website, you’ll see that we’ve been gradually developing policies and making improvements.

It pays to be proactive. That comes across in these civil rights complaints.

For more on how to be proactive about accessible design at your university, check out:

Disclaimer: this blog post does not constitute legal advice.

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