Why online ed accessibility is not a “when we get to it” issue

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.

accessibility-universities-onlineIn 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.”

(Next page: Accessibility as a resistance to change; resources/tools available)

Getting onboard with accessibility

Getting colleges and universities onboard with accessible learning is a struggle that Kara Zirkle is all too familiar with. As IT accessibility coordinator at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., she says resistance to change – particularly in the cultural sense – is fairly natural and tends to stand in the way of even the best intentions on the assistive learning front.

To overcome this obstacle, she says schools should institute solid policies and procedures that address all federal (i.e., ADA) and state accessibility requirements.

At GMU, Zirkle says the school has built a great deal of accessibility language into its procurement contracts, addendums, and purchase reviews. “That gives us insights into exactly what’s been implemented and allows us to focus on what else needs to be done,” says Zirkle, who admits that in some cases, this additional layer of requirements can add time to the procurement process. “Our system works great for us in terms of incorporating accessibility, but in some cases the requirements do add time to the procurement process.”

For the process and cultural changes that Zirkle mentions to be effective, she says everyone from the president to the provost to the IT department to individual faculty members should be involved in the higher education setting. Without these key players on the team, Zirkle says such initiatives can quickly become fragmented and ineffective.

In some cases, watching how other schools either address – or, get in trouble for thwarting – the laws can help institutions formulate their own approaches to accessible learning content. “We’re seeing more lawsuits and complaints surfacing, and that’s giving schools some benchmarks to turn to, rather than having to reinvent the wheel,” says Zirkle. “The recent activity is creating a chain reaction of responsibility and helping institutions gain a better understanding of what’s really involved when it comes to accessibility.”

Since launching its closed captioning initiative three years ago, GMU has tripled its usage of the utility and is now at 50 percent compliance and 50 percent accommodation on all content. “We’re having to ask for additional funds every year because the closed captioning is growing so much,” states Zirkle, acknowledging the fact that not all schools can accommodate and fund such growth. The large university that’s experiencing budget cuts, for example, or the small college that hasn’t even addressed the issue yet, are both in challenging positions.

“I see accessibility as a huge area for new schools that have no such initiatives in place because money is tight everywhere,” says Zirkle. “In an ideal world, every school would have a chief information accessibility manager, but for now there are still many of them that are thinking, ‘Hey we’re good. We don’t have to worry about this until we get caught.’

Industry gets some skin in the accessibility game

At UW, Burgstahler says the university has built accessibility into its workflow.

Working with Phil Reid, associate vice provost, academic services UW-IT, for example, she enlists the help of a high-level task force comprising faculty members, an ADA compliance officer, the IT department, purchasing agents, and communications representatives to create a well-rounded approach to accessibility.

“We meet once a month to discuss the issues and the forward-looking changes that need to be made,” says Burgstahler, who sees the campus IT department as an integral piece of the accessibility puzzle. “You need someone who can provide the guidelines and to consult with teachers that want to caption their videos. These are both really important parts of the process.”

For example, Reid says the college recently switched over to a Panopto electronic captioning system. But before rolling out the system, his department looked closely at the design aspects of the solution and how those factors impact the need for accessible content. “To make the transition as easy as possible, we baked the accessibility elements right into the service from inception,” he points out, “rather than waiting for the service to mature and then wondering what to do about the accessibility later.”

Reid says this proactive approach has served UW well. As more institutions of higher education either take their own proactive approaches to accessibility – or, come under scrutiny for either intentionally or unintentionally ignoring the requirements – he expects awareness of the underlying issue to reach new heights.

On a positive note, Reid sees more technology vendors stepping up to the plate to help educational institutions comply with ADA and other mandates.

“We’re definitely seeing a greater awareness of accessibility on the part of industry,” says Reid. “When we deal with industrial partners for software and service-type initiatives these days, for instance, accessibility is discussed much more frequently. That’s a good thing and a step in the right direction.”

Bridget McCrea is an editorial freelancer for eSchool Media.

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