Accessibil-IT: Web Accessibility Regulations

Web Accessibility Regulations - California Community Colleges Accessibility CenterIn July, the Department of Justice (DOJ) placed rulemaking for web accessibility regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on the inactive list – an indication that no regulations should be expected any time soon.

While this decision raises questions as to the impact on state and local governments and public and private entities, the effect to California Community Colleges (CCC) in addressing information and communication technology (ICT) accessibility at the institutional level may not be as significant as expected.

The DOJ and Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued guidance in 2010 with a Dear Colleague letter outlining a higher education institution's obligations to students with disabilities as it pertains to technology. In that letter, and the follow-up FAQs (PDF), both DOJ and OCR made it clear that institutions have obligations under Section 504 and Title II of the ADA in preventing discrimination against students with disabilities, and students must be afforded an equal opportunity to participate.

However, the Dear Colleague letter and follow-up correspondence did not explicitly say how institutions were to meet these requirements, nor did they issue specific regulations. Rather, the past seven years have seen numerous legal settlements and compliance reviews specifying web accessibility standards and institutional processes expected in order to meet these non-discrimination obligations.

Regulations Being Relaxed?

Compounding the recent news from the DOJ, comments from Acting Assistant Secretary for OCR and Acting Assistant Attorney General at DOJ from notes gathered during the NACUA conference this summer indicates that both agencies are reviewing past guidance. Initial feedback suggests that future regulatory efforts will emphasize cost-benefit analyses and OCR compliance reviews will be a more focused activity.

Such events may indicate to some a hiatus or relaxation on defined technical regulations for ICT accessibility at higher education institutions. However, California's state laws do have a role to play with state-level requirements as set forth in California Government Code 7405. This statute specifies that state entities are to meet the accessibility requirements of the Section 508 Standards.

We have discussed previously that the Section 508 standards underwent a refresh process at the federal level and the updated requirements now incorporate by reference the WCAG 2.0, Level A and Level AA, accessibility standard. Simply put, for web-based systems, electronic content, and software applications, the accessibility standards now point to the WCAG 2.0 success criteria. This offers a technical threshold by which ICT products may be measured and evaluated to determine a baseline level of accessibility.

What Should Colleges Do?

From a federal perspective, colleges should not expect any regulatory guidance in the short- or medium-term from DOJ and OCR regarding ICT accessibility standards. For California community colleges, however, state-level requirements do provide a technical standard by which to make accessibility determinations.

In addition to these technical standards, colleges can take proactive measures to develop a campus culture that supports access for students with disabilities. Such actions can include:

  • Identifying a person to be in charge of IT accessibility
  • Drafting policy language
  • Having processes to address complaints and to verify accessibility during procurement
  • Conducting website accessibility scans
  • Providing education to faculty and staff related to web accessibility and accessible instructional content

Civil rights and discrimination cases that involve technology and access to college programs and services will continue to happen and it is expected these will be resolved at a state or circuit court level on a case-by-case basis. While such legal outcomes can provide a measure of clarity regarding legal interpretations, colleges can refine their efforts now and continue building institutional solutions that ensure technology access for students with disabilities and their greater campus communities.

Additional Reading

The OCR of the Department of Education and DOJ Change Approach to Digital Accessibility

OCR, DOJ Heads Clarify Plans to “Reorient” Approach

A New Day at OCR


Sean Keegan is Director of
the California Community Colleges Accessibility Center


 

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