Joint Letter Brings Renewed Focus on Accessibility for Online Education

By: Laura Swanson
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As technology continues to evolve, so, too, do the ways in which students attend or access college and university classes, services, programs, and activities.  

Many institutions continue to find benefits in keeping or expanding online access for all the above. Recently, however, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Education (DOE) sent out a joint reminder to institutions to ensure that accessibility remains a priority with these increased online offerings. 

Requirements to ensure accessibility for students are nothing new. Section II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act both require that colleges, universities, and other post-secondary institutions ensure that students with disabilities have access to the same opportunities as non-disabled students. 

Despite this, many universities and colleges continue to struggle to provide fully accessible, online, and virtual learning environments to their students. 

“For years, the approach has been to provide accommodations with the mindset of fixing the barrier so that an individual with a disability can engage,” said Scott Ready, Global Head of Accessibility and Inclusion at VITAC’s parent company, Verbit. “This ‘Dear Colleague Letter’ is encouraging accessibility rather than accommodations and ensures that areas throughout the institution are able to be engaged in an equitable way. This means not only the classroom, but throughout the campus, including sports, social media, and all other types of events.”  

Focusing on accessibility rather than accommodations can help address one of the major issues providing barriers to access: the lack of compatibility with assistive technologies used by students, such as screen readers or dictation tools. Changing the approach to thinking about compatibility with accessibility tools and making accessibility an integral part of designing and delivering virtual learning tools and resources removes the need to address access barriers after the fact. 

Multiple solutions exist to ensure online and virtual accessibility. Solutions can include: 

  • Transcripts or captions for audio content like podcasts and recordings
  • Captions for videos 
  • Audio description for videos 
  • Accessible file formats – files that are appropriately tagged and able to be read by a screen reader 
  • Alt text for images 
  • Accessible color contrast 

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The reminder also was careful to point out that any material publicly available should be accessible to the general public. So, any podcasts, videos, or website content should be accessible with transcripts, captions, or audio description as well. 

The letter provides a much-needed push and reminder for higher learning institution administrations to take significant steps in ensuring online and virtual accessibility for all students, regardless of abilities, and a step towards equal and inclusive learning opportunities. It’s time to address digital inequalities and to adhere to the legal requirements of accessibility that students require and deserve.