Higher ed has a digital accessibility compliance problem. What can you do to get up to speed?

"A lot of institutions view accessibility as a check-the-box," says Brian Robinson, senior vice president of product at Watermark, an edtech company focused on student success. "That's really not enough. What about students who face temporary disabilities?"

With students, faculty and related academic programs going online during the pandemic, students with disabilities experienced a proliferation of edtech tools ready to assist them in the digital space. However, despite the new higher education landscape that’s formed and insistence from government officials, colleges and universities at large still have many strategic holes in ensuring accessibility compliance.

In May, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) issued a joint letter informing higher education institutions of the importance of improving their websites’ digital accessibility. The directive is deeply supported by a July audit from AAAtraq, a risk management firm, that found 97% of U.S. colleges and universities do not have accessibility-compliant websites. Most of them were compromised on their homepage, Government Technology reports.

“There has been a distinct lack of accountability in this market, and we want to change that,” AAAtraq CEO Lawrence Shaw said. “It is becoming ever more evident that compliance methods are failing, underpinning the need for a risk-managed rather than technically led approach.”

Consequently, colleges are finding themselves embroiled in legal action or government investigation. According to an August EDUCAUSE Quickpoll that surveyed over 700 IT professionals, 68% reported that their institution has faced at least one of these challenges, with more than a quarter having faced more than one. At Los Angeles Community College District, two blind students were awarded $240,000 in May for not promptly receiving accessible course materials and software. Moreover, the DOJ and DOE threatened their own tranche of investigations, lawsuits or monetary penalties for noncompliance across schools’ websites, online courses, learning management systems and other digital content.

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On top of the fact they’re denying students learning opportunities and could potentially face financial and legal penalties, EDUCAUSE found that 52% of IT professionals believed their institutional leaders weren’t knowledgeable about issues related to technology accessibility.

Despite DOE issuing similar letters in 2008 and 2015, institutions falling into accessibility compliance traps may be due to a lack of awareness, says Brian Robinson, senior vice president of product at Watermark, an edtech company focused on student success.

“A lot of institutions view accessibility as a check-the-box,” he says. “That’s really not enough. What about students who face temporary disabilities?”

Students your college may be overlooking, for example, include those who’ve broken an arm, precluding them from navigating online.

“I encourage colleges to develop empathy firsthand in their training and offerings to their faculty and staff,” Robinson says.

Additionally, he encourages institutions to better vet the vendors they work with that offer online software and accessible procurement policies. Encourage vendors to retest their software using the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template before integrating it into their institution, Robinson advises. VPAT ensures products conform with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect VPAT, he says. “If you don’t see any remarks or comments on it, there’s probably some more digging that you want to do.”

Lastly, as more colleges boost their course and program offerings online, it’s the perfect time to embed this intention from the get-go.

“It’s certainly a better approach to think about it from the start than tacking it on down the line,” he says. “I think the pandemic revealed that accessibility matters for all students.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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