As several high-profile lawsuits surface around accessibility of web content, colleges and universities must take the steps necessary to shore up their own approaches to online accessibility of web content.
In the era of online learning, colleges and universities are quickly learning that it’s not enough to provide online content—the content must be accessible for all. But how can institutions provide online accessibility; and is it a legal requirement?
In February, advocates for the deaf filed federal lawsuits against Harvard and M.I.T., stating that both universities violated anti-discrimination laws by failing to provide closed captioning in their online lectures, courses, podcasts, and other educational materials. In “Harvard and M.I.T. Are Sued Over Lack of Closed Captions,” the New York Times highlighted portions of the complaint and zeroed in on the fact that, “Much of Harvard’s online content is either not captioned or is inaccurately or unintelligibly captioned, making it inaccessible for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.”
Applying ADA to online education
This new case highlights a particularly controversial subject in an era where more institutions of higher education are making lectures available online and developing related content that may not always be accessible to students with disabilities. Sheryl Burgstahler, founder and director of University of Washington’s DO-IT Center and UW Access Technology Center (ATC) in Seattle, says part of the issue lies in confusion over exactly how the American Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to the world of online education.
“Everyone has gotten used to the fact that ADA requires us to provide accessible classrooms, materials, and alternative texts,” says Burgstahler, “but they hadn’t completely thought everything through online. The bottom line is, whatever schools are providing in the physical environment also needs to be made available to individuals with disabilities – whether we’re providing a online course or just posting our college president’s recent speech on the web.”
The UW ATC, for example, allows for full use of campus computing resources using braille tools, alternate document formatting, magnification for blind/low-vision users, keyboard/mouse alternatives, and speech-input software. And while closed-captioning a video isn’t necessarily difficult, Burgstahler says schools get themselves in hot water (as in the case of Harvard and M.I.T) when they ignore their legal, ADA-related obligations.
“A lot of people just don’t think about it and they don’t realize that it’s our legal obligation,” says Burgstahler. “It’s also our ethical obligation to include students with disabilities in the [conversation] when we decide to give people access to educational content.” In some cases, she says the oversight can be attributed to the fact that a specific professor or teacher doesn’t have a deaf student in his or her class.
“They’ll provide closed captioning when they know they have a student who needs it,” says Burgstahler, “but what they don’t realize is that when they’re blasting things out to the world via the web, there are plenty of people (English as a Second Language learners, for example), who need or want access to that content – and they don’t always have it.”