Accessibil-IT: Accessibility Is Proactive, Accommodations Are Reactive

California Community Colleges Accessibility CenterA question often asked is, “Why are web and IT accessibility requirements necessary when students can request accommodations?” This perception is not uncommon and stems from a misunderstanding as to the right of access and the role of student accommodations in the higher education environment.

Accommodations are intended to allow an individual to participate when the level of access present fails to address that individual’s specific needs. Creating access-based solutions provides opportunities for a greater audience without requiring individualized attention. As architectural accessibility standards have established criteria for access in the built environment, electronic and information technology accessibility standards can offer a similar role for the online and technology environment.

Passed in 1968, the Architectural Barriers Act was one of the first laws for addressing access in the built environment with the intent that individuals with disabilities would have access to, and ready use of, buildings and facilities. With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the scope of access to physical buildings and facilities was expanded, underscoring a basic principle that individuals with disabilities have the right to interact with the built environment in a manner equivalent to non-disabled individuals. In the intervening years, the architectural standards which define access in the physical environment have undergone modifications and updates to reflect changes in building codes, feedback from the design and construction industry, and input from people with disabilities.

EIT Accessibility Standards Evolve

In similar fashion, accessibility standards for electronic and information technology have evolved. In 1999, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, 1.0 (WCAG 1.0) was released and provided guidance to web developers and designers as to how to make web content accessible to people with disabilities. Two years later, the US Section 508 Standards were enacted and set accessibility standards for the federal government when developing or purchasing electronic and IT products. And in 2010, more than a decade after the original web accessibility guidelines were released, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) was accepted as an international standard for accessible websites and web-applications and has been proposed for inclusion into a refresh of the US Section 508 Standards.

The Office for Civil Rights has defined what the term accessible (PDF) means within an electronic and IT environment for educational institutions and this parallels the basic principle of access in the physical environment: Individuals with disabilities have the right to access electronic and IT solutions in a manner equivalent to non-disabled individuals. For example, it would be inappropriate for a student with a disability to have to request accommodations because the college’s Wi-Fi login screen was not designed to accessibility standards when this functionality is available to all other students. Much like the architectural accessibility standards that specify the criteria for access in the built environment, it is the electronic and IT accessibility standards that specify the criteria for access in the technology environment.

Addressing Individual Needs

Accommodations, on the other hand, are not general and instead are intended to address an individual’s specific needs. In the educational context, accommodations refer to the academic adjustments and auxiliary aids and services made available specific to the needs of an individual with a disability and appropriate to the situation. Accommodations must be requested and result from an interactive process between the student and a disability specialist or other institutional representative to arrive at specific modifications for that student. Accommodations serve an important and vital role at educational institutions, but given their individualized nature, are not necessarily applicable for all individuals with disabilities in all situations.

Accessibility is a proactive model whereas accommodations are, by design, reactive. Creating accessible web and IT solutions allows the opportunity for individuals with disabilities to participate in a more equivalent manner and avail themselves of the same resources and services offered to the campus community. The adoption of technology accessibility standards provides direction for general access to, and ready use of, the electronic and information technology solutions we implement at our community colleges. To create the opportunity for students with disabilities to engage with campus technology solutions in a manner equivalent to their non-disabled peers, we must embrace the proactive model institutionally.

Upcoming Events

The CCC Accessibility Center will host webinars and workshop events in the coming months to highlight electronic and information technology accessibility issues.

On Nov. 30, we will host a webinar for public information officers to ask questions about web and IT accessibility topics.

On January 9-10, 2017, the CCC Information Security Center and CCC Accessibility Center will present IT Security and Accessibility workshops at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose. The back-to-back workshop events are in-person and will focus on the top issues facing the California Community Colleges in the areas of IT security and web and IT accessibility. Both the IT Security and Accessibility workshops are free, but registration is required.


Sean Keegan is Director of the California Community Colleges Accessibility Center


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