More than 645,000 students in the United States report having a disability. And while every higher education institution in the country has done its utmost in the last 30 years to ensure that campuses, offices and living spaces are accessible to those with a physical disability, many of their digital spaces are far less accommodating.
More than two percent of U.S. students have a visual impairment, four percent have hearing problems and seven percent have limited mobility. Every one of these students must log into school websites to enroll, access lesson information and more. But if those impairments are severe enough, they may not be able to fully interact with a digital space.
Often, persons with disabilities use assistive technology to access a website. But, if the site’s code isn’t compatible, they simply cannot log in. That means hundreds of thousands of students are potentially missing out on crucial information.
The good news is, with the right investment and positive change of culture, any higher education institution can quickly make changes that will significantly improve its web accessibility. But this isn’t a one-and-done quick fix. To adhere to upcoming laws, avoid costly lawsuits and, most importantly, correctly serve the hundreds of thousands of students with disabilities studying in the U.S., institutions need to make accessibility central to their digital strategies forevermore.
Rules, Guidelines and Future Laws
Public institutional changes are coming fast. Title II of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) calls on all government digital spaces including public universities to “prohibit exclusion, segregation, and unequal treatment” of persons with disabilities. This was written in 1990, long before the idea of a digital space was worthy of inclusion.
That’s about to change. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is currently working on changes to Title II to specifically add websites into the remit. In October 2016, the DOJ will close public comment on the issue. We predict it will publish rules by 2018, maybe sooner.
The guidelines will be based upon Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international standards organization of the Internet. WCAG 2.0 is the international standard for websites, and the basis of many international anti-discrimination laws. WCAG 2.0 is made up of 12 guidelines organized under four principles: ‘perceivable’, ‘operable’, ‘understandable’ and ‘robust’. Each of these has measureable success criteria at three levels. The DOJ says public web spaces will have two years to be ‘Level AA’ compliant, the second-highest standard.
While public website compliance is imminent, private institutional changes are not far behind. The DOJ has stated that Title III, the ADA guidelines that pertain to all other organizations including private higher education institutions, will be amended after Title II. The DOJ said: “[A] Title II web accessibility rule is likely to facilitate the creation of an infrastructure for web accessibility that will be very important in the Department’s preparation of the Title III Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on website accessibility of public accommodations.” The ADA will soon cover all digital spaces for all higher education institutions.
While Rules Evolve, Lawsuits Continue
The target is moving as rules evolve, but that hasn’t stopped students with disabilities, equality activists and the government from targeting higher education institutions for web accessibility discrimination lawsuits. The DOJ and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) use WCAG 2.0 as a standard to measure the lack of web accessibility among colleges.
The DOJ, the Department of Education (DoE) and the OCR have filed complaints against dozens of educational institutions in the last few years. Ivy League, for-profit and community colleges alike have fallen foul to inaccessible websites and teaching materials. Many of these cases have taken a long time to come to a resolution and have cost the schools hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Most of the complaints have resulted in ‘resolution agreements’ on the part of the institution to right their inaccessibility wrongs. They have agreed to develop, adopt and implement a remediation plan to ensure adherence to a policy of web accessibility based on the international standards. This is a worthy and necessary endeavor, but one that’s a lot easier (and cheaper) to execute proactively.
So how can a higher education institution begin to tackle the issue of web accessibility before a lawsuit is delivered?
Best Practice: Forms, Images And More
WCAG 2.0 can be daunting, and the long-term implementation of a sound policy is complicated. But, there are a number of top-line web coding issues developers can begin to address immediately that will significantly improve their ‘Level AA’ status.
The first step to accessibility success is for designers and programmers to ensure clean, quality code. Many sites may have been created using WYSIWYG software or may have been rushed to completion. The result is excessive or non-compliant code that may work with forgiving Internet browsers, but may be non-compatible for assistive technology (screen readers) and special software.
A page full of useless or incorrect code can hinder efforts to go back and make websites more accessible. It also produces more errors should pages be copied or duplicated as more content is added. Working with a good development team to go through and clean up your backend code is a vital, first step.
To create an accessible site, one must approach a website’s content hierarchy as web content. Websites are not books or newspapers, we do not read them or navigate them in a linear way. We create our own path to navigate, and we skim a lot of data before finding what we are looking for. Accessibility technology and software reads a site the same way.
Headers are particularly important to make site hierarchy cohesive – websites are constructed using header tags in descending order to organize the information. Consider trying to find course material:
We read and navigate websites like a bulleted list naturally, as do website readers and assistive technology, so it’s essential that website headers and page hierarchy is simply and correctly organized. If your website isn’t correctly arranged, assistive technology may struggle to guide a user in a logical fashion.
The ability to pull information from users via online forms is critical for any number of functions. But if a form isn’t correctly coded at the back end, it may not work for someone with a disability.
A form can be the most complicated part of a website. They may have to interact with a database or another form and require unforgiving pieces of code. A good form should allow a user to ‘tab’ their way through, moving from one box to the next in order and fill out the fields only with a keyboard. If this isn’t possible, then a student with a disability may have to abandon the form entirely. Like all elements of a website, this needn’t be an issue if the code is correct and clean.
Good form code can also help a school’s efficiency. If a person with disabilities cannot fill out a form, they may have to pick up the phone, or go to the office in person. This may mean an employee has to manually enter the data, using additional people resources or risk inaccurate data entry. It’s a waste of time, money and completely unnecessary.
Adding alternative text for visual elements of a website is a cornerstone of good accessibility. Simply, this is adding tags to an element with a description of what the element is. But it can be tricky, as you must succinctly describe the content and function of an element, be it an image, a link or a button. The assistive technology must consider the information that the element conveys and then ‘translate’ that into a clear and concise phrase or sentence.
Alternative texts refer to more than just visual elements. Many of the lawsuits against higher education institutions came from deaf students who could not access information on videos or audio files. A good rule of thumb is to go through a website and, if any element cannot be ‘read’, then it may not be accessible to a student with a disability.
Everyone Must Take Ownership of Accessibility
Considering the size of college websites, and the amount of information that is being added on a daily basis, making a site more accessible isn’t a straightforward task. It needs to be owned by many people across an organization.
Finding stakeholders who are responsible is crucial. Identifying advocates across departments or schools is a good first step, but then begin to map out who touches a website or who has jurisdiction over elements that make the website function. From there, institution-wide policy can begin.
You also need champions to help make change. Professors who have a student with a disability may be valuable allies, especially if they have had to make their digital course material more accessible to accommodate the student. It’s also worth considering outside champions. Private donors and corporate sponsors may have a vested interest in seeing web accessibility become a priority, and may give the cause added urgency at the highest level.
It’s also important to note that institutions shouldn’t go it alone. Many of the ‘resolution agreements’ colleges have created in recent years include hiring third party resources to ensure that websites have implemented changes and are monitored for accessibility violations. There are a number of services and tools on the market that will monitor and manage website content to ensure old and new content is accessible.
Web accessibility has to become part of the plan and part of the culture throughout an organization, so bringing everyone to the table from the outset is the best way to be proactive and begin implementing change.
This Is The Right Thing To Do
Lawsuits and regulations might receive all the headlines, but the most important aspect of web accessibility is to remember that this helps students and is the right thing to do. The imperative shouldn’t be to avoid legal action – it should be a moral one.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities has a telling statistic: only one in four of students who received help and support for their disability at high school ask for help and support when they enter higher education. These young men and women are often out in the world alone for the first time, and they yearn for independence just as much as any able-bodied students – maybe more. They don’t want to ask for special dispensation, so we should create a world where they have equal access to all amenities without asking.
Title II and Title III have ensured that students with disabilities can now get to class, a bathroom, their dorm or the library without asking for help. Equal access to public physical spaces is their inalienable right. And so should access to digital spaces.