Higher education has a history of favoring accommodations above accessibility. In fact, accessibility is a fairly recent topic for higher education. The shift to accessibility is largely due to legal action both inside and outside the courtroom. Even so, some components of accessibility currently exist in a gray area, especially when they are applied to non-digital content distribution.
Nevertheless, there are legal standards everyone should be aware of. Specifically, institutions need to understand:
- The Americans with Disabilities Act Titles II and III: Title II prohibits all disability related discrimination by any public entity at the local or state level, and Title III prohibits disability discrimination public accommodations. “Public accommodations” is a sweeping category that increasingly seems to include most or all public-facing websites.
- The Rehabilitation Act Section 504 and possibly Section 508: The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 has been amended over the years, but the basic idea that people with disabilities must be afforded equal access to all programs, services, and activities that receive federal subsidy of any kind. Public institutions fall under 504 by definition. Section 508 is specific to federal agencies, although in certain cases a college or university might also be subject to 508 directly through the Assistive Technology Act or through contracts with the federal government. Regardless, Sections 504 and 508 are defined in relationship to each other and together function much like a single set of standards.
Recent Consent Decrees, lawsuits, agreements, and settlements have dialed in what it means to be accessible. Documents like the agreement between Wichita State University and the National Federation of the Blind make it clear that all institutions should be sure to meet the standards of “equally effective” and “timely” in their accommodations. In order to meet these standards, institutions must resort to improving the accessibility of everything they create, because these standards are very difficult to meet any other way:
- Equally Effective: The underlying format or medium communicates the same information in as timely a fashion as does the original format or medium.
- Timely: access in sufficient time for all students to have an equal opportunity to obtain the same result, to gain the same benefit, or to reach the same level of achievement as other students.
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