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Feds Warn Higher Ed of Digital Accessibility Requirements

David Gibson

When it comes to web accessibility compliance, colleges and universities face a unique level of scrutiny. Not only are higher eds bound by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but since practically all receive government funding in one form or another, they’re also bound by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. From a regulatory and enforcement perspective, both the Department of Justice as well as the Department of Education hold jurisdiction. Plus the public can take action directly under the ADA in the courts, or through complaints to the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights, and that office is required to investigate every complaint.

On May 19, 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) issued a joint letter to higher education institutions regarding web accessibility requirements under the ADA and Section 504.

The letter reaffirmed the federal government's commitment to ensuring that students with disabilities have equal access to educational opportunities online, especially in light of the increased reliance on digital platforms due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter also provided guidance and resources for higher education institutions to comply with the web accessibility standards established by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Level AA.

According to the letter, higher education institutions must ensure that their websites, online courses, learning management systems, and other digital content are accessible to students with disabilities, such as those who are blind, deaf, or have cognitive impairments. The letter also stated that higher education institutions must provide reasonable accommodations and auxiliary aids and services to students with disabilities who request them, such as captioning, audio description, sign language interpretation, or alternative formats.

The letter warned that failure to comply with the web accessibility requirements may result in enforcement actions by the DOJ or the DOE's Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which may include investigations, lawsuits, or monetary penalties. The letter also encouraged higher education institutions to conduct regular audits and evaluations of their web accessibility practices and to seek technical assistance from experts and organizations in the field.

The letter concluded by emphasizing the importance of web accessibility for promoting inclusion, diversity, and equity in higher education and for ensuring that all students can benefit from the educational opportunities offered online.

Colleges and universities have been well aware of these obligations for a very long time. The DOE’s Office of Civil Rights issued similar letters in 2008 and 20015 clarifying that schools and educational institutions have an obligation to ensure that their websites and online content are accessible to individuals with disabilities. The 2015 letter emphasized the use of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as a benchmark for accessibility standards.

Interestingly, this recent joint letter does not specify requirements and makes no mention of WCAG.

The WCAG are a set of standards that help make web content more accessible to people with disabilities. WCAG is developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international organization that creates web standards. WCAG is not a legal requirement, but it is often referenced in legislation and court decisions as the benchmark for web accessibility.

WCAG has three versions: WCAG 2.0, WCAG 2.1, and WCAG 2.2 Draft. WCAG 2.1 is the most current version of WCAG. It includes all the success criteria from WCAG 2.0, plus some new ones that address mobile accessibility, low vision, and cognitive and learning disabilities. WCAG 2.2 Draft is scheduled to be finalized this year. It includes some proposed new success criteria that address focus visibility, pointer gestures, contrast enhancements, and more.

To make their websites accessible, colleges and universities in the US should follow the WCAG 2.1 standards and aim for at least level AA conformance. They should also test their websites with trained credentialed experts in digital accessibility using both automated tools and manual testing that include assistive technologies such as screen readers used by people with disabilities. They should also provide training and resources for their web developers, designers, content creators, and administrators on how to create and maintain accessible web content.

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