Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why Your Course Materials Might Violate the ADA

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) reported that in 2008 nearly 11 percent of postsecondary students had a disability, ranging from visual to motor impairments. Though administrators and faculty may be familiar with some common accommodations for disabled students such as extra time on exams and note takers, they may not know that they also need to ensure textbooks, websites, handouts, and similar course materials are accessible.

For example, roughly 100,000 to 200,000 postsecondary students have print disabilities, meaning they cannot read standard print because of physical, developmental, or learning disabilities. Legally, schools need to make reasonable accomodations for these and other disabilites that prevent students from accessing print and digital content.

The lack of accessible materials can have serious effects on a student's success, causing them to fall behind or even withdraw from courses without access to the same materials as their classmates.

Three high-profile cases settled in the first-half of 2013 illustrate the importance of making sure all course materials are accessible.

  • In March, South Carolina Technical College System entered into an agreement with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) over findings that its websites were not accessible to visually impaired students. It agreed to develop a resource guide of accessibility requirements, make its websites accessible, and annually review its websites and address accessibility problems.
  • In May, the University of California at Berkeley reached a settlement with Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) to ensure that students with print related disabilities had access to all necessary materials. Berkeley agreed to implement policies and procedures to provide access to print materials through alternative media solutions, interim accomodations, or personal readers.
  • In July, the Department of Justice (DOJ) settled with Louisiana Tech University over claims that the university used an online learning product that was inaccessible to blind students. The university will make learning technology, web pages, and course content accessible, and train its instructors and administrators on accessibility requirements. 


Training the Faculty

As these recent cases illustrate, the push to move course material online is creating new challenges (and opportunities) with regards to accessibility. Indeed, as more students with disabilities enroll in colleges and universities, faculty will increasingly need to be forward-thinking to ensure their textbooks, handouts, and online materials are fully accessible.

Part of the Louisiana Tech agreement explicitly requires the university to train "all individuals who provide any course-related instruction to University students (including, but not limited to, professors, instructors, other faculty, and teaching assistants)" on accommodation requirements and best practices.

Indeed, at this year's annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Attorneys, L. Scott Lisner of Ohio State University spoke to this issue:
"I used to say I didn’t want individual faculty members making individual accommodations for their students. Now I need 5,000 content creators to be creating accessible content...I don’t expect a faculty member to convert a textbook, but it is not unreasonable of them to convert a 20-page article on a webpage into an accessible format."
(Quoted in Online Accessibility a Faculty Duty at InsideHigherEd). Lisner is the president of the National Association on Higher Education and Disability.

Faculty can also help students understand their responsibilties. Unlike high schools, colleges and universities do not need to identify students with disabilities or document their needs. Thus a greater burden rests on the students' shoulders. They must identify themselves, provide documentation of their disabilities, and request accommodations. This means that new students with disabilities may not be aware of their responsibilities at the university level.

For example, the Berkeley settlement includes Alternative Media Guidelines for disabled students. The guidelines provide students with information on requesting and receiving accessible course materials.

So, as the new school year starts, here are some important questions to ask about your own campus's accommodation procedures.

  • Does your school have an individual who coordinates the school’s compliance with the Rehabilitation Act and ADA, as required by law?
  • Do you have professionals evaluate accommodation requests on a case by case basis?
  • Do you have well-publicized grievance procedures to ensure prompt and equitable resolution of complaints?
  • Are faculty members aware of their responsibility to accommodate students with disabilities? Do they know how?
  • Are course websites and your school's learning management systems accessible?
  • Do you reach out to students with disabilities who may not be aware of the services your school provides or how to get them?


Further Reading

Grasgreen, Allie. "Audiobooks Aren't Enough," InsideHigherEd. 26 July 2013.

Rothstein, Laura. "New Legal Questions About Diability Demand Colleges' Attention." Chronicle of Higher Education. 5 August 2013.

ADA best practices toolkit for websites

Joint Dear Colleague Letter on "Electronic Book Readers," Department of Education and Department of Justice

Department of Education FAQ

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