Are Higher Learning Institutions Making the Digital Grade with the ADA?

Submitted by Guest Blogger on Tue, 06/01/2021
Summary
Having equal access to technology that meets the needs of a wide range of disabilities is a win for both the user and the provider.

At some point, many of us have accessed a website for a higher learning institute (HLI) such as university, college, community college, or trade school. That may have been to pursue education for yourself or your children, see what events are occurring, look at a team schedule, seek employment, or check an instructor's resume.  Often finding the needed information takes navigating different web pages, reading text on the pages, perhaps watching a video, or filling out a form.  The ease of finding and accessing information electronically from an HLI certainly varies from school to school, but all should have digital content, technology, and online systems that are accessible. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was adopted in 1990 and stated:

No qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.

- 42 USC § 12132; see also 28 CFR. §§ 35.130(a); 35.152(b)(1).

The adoption of the Act occurred just as America was increasing the use of personal technology such as computers, tablets, and cell phones.  The authors of the ADA could not have envisioned rapid advancement of our use and dependence on technology. Revised in 2008 and entitled the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), this revision stipulates that digital content must provide equal access to individuals with a disability. The ADAAA works in tandem with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Until this past year, I never considered accessibility of digital content from the standpoint of someone with a disability, nor from the viewpoint of the entity responsible for ensuring accessibility. I work for the University of South Dakota (USD), which is in the process of revising its website, communications, and documents to increase accessibility to meet updated technology standards. While small compared to many universities across the country, USD offers 202 undergraduate and 78 graduate programs. Each of these programs has digital content requiring review and revision. 

Higher Learning Institutions have been working for 20 years to become equally accessible. While equal access is required, there are no defined regulations to meet that requirement. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) offer standards that institutes can strive to achieve. An overview of the guidelines can be found at https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/.

There is a long list of "to-dos" necessary for equal digital access.  A few of the basics include:

  1. Labeling pictures with an alternative text description that can be read by assistive technology. 
  1. Captioning videos, or if not, having transcripts available when requested.
  1. Assuring good contrast between the color of the text and the color of the background.
  1. Creating forms in a format that can be read by assistive technology.  Many technology readers that assist with vision impairment cannot translate a pdf file.
  1. Making sure that any set time allowances are of a length to accommodate people with limited dexterity.

For HLI that have delayed action in improving digital accessibility, actions taken by the United States Department of Justice and the United States Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights have provided motivation for updates and access. While some lawsuits have resulted from these actions, many HLI have reached agreements or settlements with the enforcing agencies. 

In the end, whether a voluntary action or a result of enforcement action, having equal access to technology that meets the needs of a wide range of disabilities is a win for both the user and the provider.

THIS BLOG POST WAS WRITTEN BY REGION 8 ADVISOR Pat Herman. Pat is the Special Projects Planner for the University of South Dakota Center for Disabilities.

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