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NCDAE= The National Center on Disability and Access to Education

Enhancing the lives of people with disabilities
by promoting web accessibility in education

Reflections on accessibility expectations: Faculty are expected to do what?

At NCDAE, we have long been a proponent of putting the responsibility for accessibility in the hands of those who are closest to creation of web content and products. In higher education this would mean technical individuals must produce markup that conforms to the chosen accessibility standard; vendors must deliver an LMS that conforms to the standard; faculty must create accessible content before it is loaded into the LMS (e.g., PowerPoint); and staff must create accessible documents that might end up on a website (e.g., PDF or Word docs).

While it is intuitive that the locus of control and performance expectation should reside closest to the source, it is critical that all accessibility committees and managers examine their expectations, to see if they are reasonable. If deemed reasonable, training and support structures must be present to make these expectations a reality. If they are deemed to be unreasonable, a plan must be put in place to accomplish the same task, perhaps with different individuals taking on different roles, or an overall different plan of attack. For example, an individual skilled at tagging PDF’s may be responsible for retrofitting complex PDF’s for faculty in a specific college or department. At the end of the day, the institution must deliver content that meets their accessibility standard. How this is accomplished, and who accomplishes it is the tricky part. It is a challenge to determine how best to share the responsibility for accessibility while also recognizing that limitations do exist, and then plan for it.

I am reminded of an old saying, “Don’t blame people for disappointing you, blame yourself for expecting too much” (unknown). In this past year, our GOALS experiences have caused us to reflect on just where the line in the sand should be in our expectations for non-technical individuals.

Here are a few examples of what we mean:

  1. Most agree that faculty & staff should use styles native in Word to help create semantic structure when they create a document. This includes items such as heading levels and lists.
    • Do you think they should be responsible to create an accessible document if complex tables were involved in a Word document? Frankly, given the limitations of Word (e.g., inability to tag column and row headers in a table), the next best solution is to either convert to HTML or save as PDF and then tag the tables. If you believe they should produce this content accessibly, they must understand what to do, or to whom they should turn to for help.
  2. Most agree that faculty & staff should provide alternative text for non-text images in PowerPoint.
    • Do you think they should also provide alternatives for complex charts, graphs, maps and other images that typically convey complex content? We agree that the content creator is the best to convey what should be conveyed, but the question is how should they convey it? If you have provided them with guidance that alternative text should be succinct, how (and where) do they provide these longer descriptions?
  3. Most agree that faculty & staff should be able to search for captioned media to embed into their course and even use the YouTube feature to upload a transcript and caption media they own.
    • Do you think they should be responsible for captioning all YouTube media they want to use in their course, even when they are not the owner of the video file? What about other media they find on the web?
  4. Most agree that faculty and staff should be able to export to PDF in accessible ways, tagging clear heading structure and reading order.
    • Do you think they should also be responsible for tagging PDF files with complex tables, a complex layout, or multiple form fields? Is there a difference in asking faculty and staff to create an accessible PDF from the ground up versus retrofitting a PDF? Are there lines where the PDF being retrofitted is so complex you would not expect them to have the skills to do so? These are important parameters to understand.
  5. Most agree that faculty and staff should only link to accessible web content if they require that the user go to other web pages (e.g., students must go to outside links to complete an assignment).
    • Do you think they should have the skills to evaluate the technical accessibility of that web content? If not, they would be unable to identify what conforms to the institution’s accessibility standard and what does not. If you think they should, how is this task possible when evaluations are technical in nature and many require manual checks (e.g., accessibility of JavaScript elements). Remember these are by-in-large staff that are not technical.

Notice these examples all center on non-technical individuals. Readers of our blog likely agree that technical personnel should produce accessible products without question. However, in a time when much web content is produced and delivered by nontechnical individuals, what are the most reasonable expectations?

Faculty and staff should not be expected to achieve accessibility alone, yet they should still be held responsible for the accessibility of their content. This seeming contradiction is best solved when there are explicit expectations, training, and just-in-time supports. If faculty and staff understand what is expected to be their responsibility–and when the task should fall into more technically skilled hands–they will be more likely to participate with the institution’s efforts. When creating accessible content goes beyond what would be expected of them, they should know whom to contact, where they take it, and specifics on the turnaround time. In my many years teaching, I must admit that I would complete class materials and PowerPoint presentations just in time for each class. If I were required to provide materials a week ahead of when I needed it, I might be in trouble.

It goes without saying that training specific to what faculty and staff are asked to do must be delivered to them. But, another critical aspect is the support they are offered. When a staff member has a question, whom do they call? What are the times available for staff members to make these calls? Not many institutions have included accessibility supports into their faculty help desks, but perhaps the time is right for this solution. Faculty members who receive just-in-time supports improve their knowledge and skills. Having these discussions at your institution will help you create the best solutions so content creators can assume responsibility for the accessibility of their content.


Note: Next month you will be hearing directly from a faculty member who implemented accessibility across her classes. She will describe her own experience with the items she could implement and those she could not. She received individual training and support, which is not common in postsecondary settings. Her experiences illustrate an emerging challenge in our web accessibility efforts. We hope you will read her guest blog, and that it helps provide perspective, and fodder for discussion at your institution.

How to Use our Accessibility Cheatsheets

Over the past year or so, GOALS has been developing a series of cheatsheets to help faculty, staff, and other content creators produce more accessible content. Response to these sheets has been extremely positive and we plan to continually update these resources as new techniques and technologies become available. We have recently reorganized our main cheatsheet page by type of technology (instead of date published) and have just created a new cheatsheet for Acrobat XI.

As the popularity of these resources continues to grow, we wanted to take a minute to cover how we believe these resources should (and should not) be used.

During my first year of college I had a professor who took great pride in his difficult tests. However, he did allow one single-sided sheet of handwritten notes. I remember spending a tremendous amount of time copying text in the tiniest size I could manage until I was confident the sheet contained every bit of possible information. I’m sure most of you can guess the outcome—I spent most of my time looking up every answer and struggled to finish the test before time ran out. During the next test I filled the sheet with about a third as much information, things like unfamiliar names and specific dates. I trusted in my familiarity with the concepts and used the notes to help recall details, and did much better.

While developing the GOALS cheatsheets we have the same rule—each resource must fit on a single printed page. We almost always have to cut information that we would like to include, but we feel this design decision is part of what makes these resources helpful. They may not provide all the information (the Adobe guide to Acrobat XI accessibility is a 90+ page PDF), but they provide the essential information that people are likely to forget or overlook.

Just as a real life cheatsheet won’t get you a good grade on a topic you have never studied, our accessibility cheatsheets will probably not provide enough information for users who are completely unfamiliar with accessibility (even though we know they are sometimes used this way). We have found that they are very useful as handouts at a face-to-face training or as downloadable resources on a support page with additional tutorials. Hopefully they can fill a similar role at your institution.

Learning to Love Headings in Microsoft Word

An institutional commitment to accessible online content must start with the content creators. At most institutions, content usually starts with Microsoft Word. While there are several things content creators can do to improve the accessibility of Word documents for individuals with disabilities (see our cheatsheets on Word for Windows and Word for Mac for specific examples), I am convinced that the single most important thing that they can do to enhance the accessibility of their documents is to start using true headings in Word (headings that appear in the Styles ribbon). In most documents sighted users rely on headings to scan through the document and navigate to relevant sections. Using true headings provides this same functionality to many users with disabilities, especially those who are blind. However, this can be quite an adjustment for someone who is used to creating headings by selecting text and making it bigger, bolder, underlined, centered, etc.

Below I offer a few reasons why using true headings will make life easier not just for individuals with disabilities, but for you, the document creator.

It is faster

It usually takes at least three steps to create false headings: change the text size, add bold or italics (or both), and select a different font. Adding a true heading is much simpler—just select the correct button from the Styles ribbon at the top of the page.

Screenshot of the Styles panel in Word for Windows. Options for Heading 1 and Heading 2 are visible.

If you are a person who likes to use keyboard shortcuts, you can also create heading levels 1-3 by pressing Ctrl + Alt + 1, 2, or 3 (command + option on a Mac). Once this shortcut becomes habit it can save a considerable amount of time.

Changing visual styling is straightforward

The number one complaint I hear from people who choose not to use true headings is that they are ugly or too confining.  While this can be true, changing the appearance of these headings is not as difficult as some may fear. There are two main ways to change the visual style of a page. First, you can change the appearance of the entire document with the Change Styles option on the right-hand side of the Styles ribbon:

Screenshot of the Change Styles option in Word for Windows

Second, if you would rather tweak the appearance of an individual heading level (e.g., you would like your h2s to be italicized), you can accomplish this in Windows by right clicking on a specific heading in the Styles ribbon and selecting Modify. You can even do the reverse—select a block of text that has been styled correctly, right-click the desired heading in the ribbon and choose Update [your heading] to Match Selection. On a Mac you would select the icon to the right of the Styles menu with hover text of “Manage the styles used in this document.” This enables you to modify any part of your heading to achieve the style you desire.

Screenshot of the Manage Styles option

While it does take a while to learn your way around these different options, it becomes a tremendous time saver.

Creating a Table of Contents is simple

If a document has a correct heading structure, Word can also create a table of contents for you based on the document’s heading structure. In Windows, go to the References tab and select Table of Contents. On a Mac, select the Document Elements tab and then you can directly select the Table of Contents in the format you would like it to appear.

Screenshot of the table of contenst options in Word for Mac.

You can also customize the table of contents to change its appearance or choose which heading levels will appear (e.g., Heading levels 1-3). If you make changes to the document that affects page numbers within the table of contents, you can always go back to it and choose Update.

The document is easier to create and to read

There’s a reason your 5th grade teacher taught you to start your essay by creating an outline. Documents that include headings from the start tend to be more consistent in their structure, easier to follow, and even better written. Your readers will be able to read and navigate your pages more efficiently if they can come to expect a consistent heading structure, and I am convinced that you will find it easier to write the document as well.

Faculty member says “HELP – I can’t tag my PDF articles”

From time to time I am reminded of the complexities and nuances inherent in web accessibility. This happens most often when talking to someone new to the effort. I recently visited with a faculty member who is just beginning to address accessibility in her courses. She knows that PDF’s need to be properly tagged to be accessible and she was enthusiastic about doing it, even when it involved retrofitting accessibility elements into her PDF’s. But she was quickly at a stalemate for articles in her course CMS. When this happened she assumed she was doing something wrong, rather than identifying that what was wrong was the document itself. The experience made me reflect on the fact that while we often talk with faculty members about making sure that they have PDF’s that are accessible, we might not provide them with a good enough starting point.

Readers of this blog who are familiar with PDF accessibility know that to start to address accessibility of an existing PDF document, you must have a PDF that was properly created. However, many faculty members don’t create the PDF’s they end up with. If the document is not composed of true text, you must use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on the document before other accessibility information can be added. While this step is less common all the time (thank heavens), it is important that we help faculty or staff understand how they can tell if PDF’s contain true text to begin with.

This was the step that eluded the faculty member with whom I was talking. She did not know that she needed to determine if her PDF was a scanned image or not. Because of this she assumed that her first step would be the tagging of the document itself. Of course she could not do this because it was in fact an image. Then she assumed she was doing something wrong.

There are many ways for non-technical people to determine if the PDF they wish to make accessible contains true text. Here are two ideas I shared with her and both were easy for her to implement. First, I asked her to see if she could select and copy some portion of text, and second I told her to try to search for some text element on the page. Both were successful strategies for her to determine which pages she could, and could not tag. Getting focus directly onto the text is critical if you will add an element to it (e.g., Header, ordered list).

If you are working with faculty on accessibility issues, or are a faculty or staff member yourself working on accessibility, you may be privy to similar situations in accessibility –- where a simple step was overlooked that proved significant for the person trying to create accessible content. We are very interested in hearing your experiences and sharing them with others. Please consider sharing your tips and experiences here.

Summertime, the perfect time to reflect on accessibility

Summertime for many in higher education is a time to catch up on tasks not completed during the academic year. It is also a time when the seeds are sown for new initiatives and priorities that will be fleshed out and approved in the coming year.  Many individuals, who work on web accessibility for their institution, work beyond the typical nine-month academic calendar. This combination of events makes summer the perfect time to reflect on initiatives for, and outcomes of, the institution’s web accessibility efforts.

Of course when we talk about “web accessibility” we are talking about two things. It is both the process on campus created to improve web accessibility as well as the product of those efforts (i.e., the accessibility of your web content).  We have written about this important coupling before (See Assessing your Institution’s Web Accessibility Efforts; Part 1: Evaluating the Process; Part 2: Evaluating the Product).

I am hopeful this summer you will ask yourself if your campus is ready for an increased focus on web accessibility this coming year.  Some of you are just beginning the process of institution-wide web accessibility efforts –you may be crafting plans to secure administrative support or identifying the best team to guide the campus-wide plans.  Others of you are in the midst of writing draft policies or crafting implementation plans.  Finally, there are others of you who have these in place and are working through the issues to make sure your planned efforts are receiving the resources and supports necessary for success, and will begin a round of assessment by looking at the actual accessibility of pages.

With any of these efforts, knowledge of your institution’s culture of change is vital; is it top-down, or does it require grass roots support?  Knowing this can streamline the support of those in administrative positions who can make sure you have not only the support necessary to complete the work, but also the administrative muscle, to work around the roadblocks that inevitably impede the path. Also critical is your knowledge of other institutional priorities such as increasing diversity at your campus or beginning a cycle of reaffirmation with your regional accreditation commission.  These are times when you might want to reach out to those whose role it is to engage in those priorities and have a conversation about the many outcomes that are indeed shared ones. Often reaching out to coworkers with these shared priorities can be more effective than attempting to tackle accessibility on your own.

So, if your answer is “Yes, I would like to help my campus increase our web accessibility efforts next year”, take the time needed to commit those ideas to paper and reflect on the best strategies to meet your goals.  For some of you it may be time to engage in another round of the GOALS Benchmarking and Planning tool. If you create a new cycle before benchmarking again, you can compare your progress to date.  You may benefit from looking at where you have already made progress to determine next steps.

From all of us at Project GOALS, have a wonderful summer, enjoy some vacation time, and start making plans now for the academic year to come.  Fall always comes sooner than we want.

Budgeting for Web Accessibility

For many units in higher education, April is budget month; these budget requests detail expenditures for the coming fiscal year that will begin July 1. Of course, those line items must be a good fit for the implementation planned in the coming year. To that end we have written a resource for those who are creating budget requests to support web accessibility. It is only through the process of securing an adequate budget that your efforts can succeed.

Joe Biden once famously said; “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”  If you have budget stories, ideas, or successful strategies to share with others to help with their budget process, please share them here. I look forward to seeing how creative others have become to secure the budget that is needed for web accessibility efforts.

All Roads Lead to Rome

We are hearing a lot from the 46 campuses involved as Participating Institutions in the GOALS Benchmarking and Planning Process. A surprising and wonderful element we have uncovered is the different ways campuses have approached completion of their institution wide self-study. It seems fitting to share this information with others, especially those new to the process. Because, while different processes have been used to achieve successful results, it appears that all roads lead to Rome in using the tool to get to intended outcomes.

By way of background, the GOALS Benchmarking and Planning Tool was created to support asynchronous communication within an institutional study team. The team leader would facilitate the rest of the team as together, they determine their institution’s response to self-study questions as well as their next steps (i.e., their Action Plan for moving forward). It was thought that by developing the tool this way it would support anytime anywhere participation, thus enabling institutions to include members from across campus (or campuses) and eliminating the need to “schedule” meetings.

While our decision was made to provide the greatest flexibility to an institution, we have heard that it is not always the best match. Some teams found difficulties in getting team members to engage in an asynchronous process in a timely way. Some members had never encountered online collaborative work before and this became an issue for them. For others, timelines for completion were not well stated. Also, for some, this self-study was an easy task to set aside either due to competing demands on their time or because the items they were asked to complete were unfamiliar to them (e.g., staff members from the Library might be unaware of how to respond to items regarding procurement policies). When others on the team waited for responses, this created an endless game of “hot potato” at some institutions. All in all, for many institutions, it made for a protracted process that took way too long to complete.

To avoid this, institutions began using creative processes to complete the self-study and action plan. These alternative processes were a superior fit to their needs and circumstances. Here are alternate ways institutions are engaging with the Benchmarking and Planning Tool with good outcomes.

  1. Some institutions have jettisoned the idea of the team leader facilitating an asynchronous study team altogether. Instead they brought everyone into a face-to-face meeting. It seems that this resolves issues of waiting for some to finish items and enables a large volume of work to be completed succinctly. Variations on this method include:
    1. A full-day retreat in a meeting room on campus
    2. Face-to-face meetings scheduled well in advance for 2 hours each week for a month.
    3. Use of technology to create face-to-face meetings if participants are not co-located (e.g., Adobe Connect; Skype video chat with multiple connections; PolyCom)
  2. At one institution, the Team Leader recognized that it was not the most effective or efficient use of staff time to have everyone participate throughout all Indicators. So she identified pertinent members to participate at key points in time. For example, she only engaged Human Resources as they discussed how they are securing and retaining technical personnel with expertise in accessibility. Each week, she would provide assignments to different members of the team, and she made sure everyone had completed these assignments prior to the next week. In this way the expertise of the diverse stakeholders was captured without putting them in situations where they felt they did not have contributions to make. Moreover, she was able to shepherd the process along with timely completion.

If you have used an alternate process while engaged in the GOALS self-study at your institution, please share it here. Others will benefit from hearing how local solutions improved your ability to complete this important process.

Accessibility Video “Playlist”

Video can often convey emotion and information more effectively than a static article. It can be an engaging way to start a presentation or to demonstrate a complex task. However, finding the best video for a certain topic can often be very time consuming (trust me!). While there are many great videos online, many of the videos on this topic present misinformation (e.g., the wrong way to add alternative text in MS Word) or are presented without captions themselves.

This post includes links to the most accurate, engaging, and accessible videos that I could find after hours of searching. Unless specified otherwise, videos are captioned and are found in YouTube.

Experiences of users with disabilities

People are far more inclined to make their content accessible once they realize how their design decisions can help real people with disabilities. If you only have time to share one video, make it a firsthand account from a user with a disability.

A Personal Look at Accessibility in Higher Education

Created by GOALS

Students and faculty with disabilities share their frustrations with inaccessible web content in higher ed as well as their optimism that things can improve.

Keeping Web Accessibility in Mind

Created by WebAIM

Three users with disabilities (blindness, quadriplegia, deafness) demonstrate their frustrations with inaccessible web content. The technology used is a bit dated, but the experiences are very relevant.

To Care and Comply

Created by

The first half of this video (especially the first minute) provides excellent examples of students and faculty with disabilities.

World Wide Access

Created by DO-IT

This is a fabulous resource for web developers and other more technical individuals. It explains the four principles of accessibility that form the foundation of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. It has dozens of examples of users with disabilities interacting with web pages, and uses audio descriptions, which may be new to some viewers.

How Blind People Use The iPhone 4S

Created by Tommy Edison

The always humorous Tommy Edison shows how he uses an iPhone. After watching this video, take a few minutes to watch one of his Blind Film Critic videos.

The importance of accessibility

While many people may think it is a noble goal, they may not be sold on the importance or value of accessible web design. These videos help outline why web accessibility is a smart, fiscally responsible decision.

Web Accessibility

Created by FaHCSIA (the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs)

An engaging, jazzy (maybe too jazzy) introduction to web accessibility. While the references and statistics refer to Australia, the principles are universal.

IT Accessibility: What Campus Leaders Have to Say

Created by DO-IT

While a bit long, this video provides a very compelling case for accessibility from Administrators in higher education. If you are struggling to win over administrators at your institution, this is a must-watch.

Creating accessible content

I had a great deal of difficulty finding tutorial videos that were accurate as well as timely.

Accessible Documents in MS Office (no captions)

Created by Microsoft Office

Although this video is not captioned, it was the most accurate and up to date video I could find. Many of the best videos for creating accessible content are provided by the company itself.

Create Accessible PDF Files in Acrobat XI (Adobe site)

Created by Adobe

A brief overview of how to use the “Make Accessible” wizard in Adobe XI. Adobe has an excellent “Accessibility Channel” for many of their tools. Unfortunately, not all of these videos are captioned.

Caption Fail

Created by Rhett and Link (no captions)

Do you know someone who thinks that YouTube’s “Automatic Captions” are the answer to their captioning problems? Show them this humorous video. Ironically, I was unable to find a good video on captioning YouTube videos.

What’s on your playlist?

Is there a video that you regularly use that isn’t on this list? Please share it below.

Looking to the Work of Others as You Create Your Institution’s Web Accessibility Policy

I for one never want to reinvent the wheel. Whenever I am tasked to create something, I always begin by looking at what others have done so that I may learn from their efforts to inform my thinking. Creating an institution-wide web accessibility policy is an enormous task that requires contemplation along many institutional dimensions and also along several policy components. In the GOALS Recommended Practice Indicators we outline what we view as necessary components to go into a policy document. While these components are described in greater detail on our website, they are comprised of the following brief elements:

  • Summary statement(s) of the policy
  • Effective date(s) for the policy
  • The scope of the policy
  • The technical standard used in the policy
  • A provision for procurement
  • The consequences if units or individuals choose non-conformance
  • A mechanism for ongoing review

It is important to remember that the policy document is separate from the institution’s written implementation plan. However finding models that have been used successfully can be a treasure trove if you are looking to create either (policy or plan) for your institution. Unfortunately, identifying good examples of policies that contain the components you may want to use, or even full policies in use, can be difficult and time consuming.

In the spirit of helping your efforts to create a web accessibility policy at your institution, the following resource sheet provides examples that may be helpful. Please remember as you look through these links that your institution may already have a template of sorts you must use for policy creation. Also, please know that there are many other excellent policies out there, so if you know of some good models, or you would like to share yours, please add it to the comments below.

Examples and suggestions for policy creation

Additional resources

Review of recent legal issues in higher education and web accessibility

I am not an attorney, or in any way associated with a legal profession. I am however an advocate for those who wish to make the digital world an accessible space, especially in higher education. Because of this, I endeavor to stay connected with the broader struggle facing higher education as legal demands for digital accessibility sweep the landscape.

I have found that if you are not following this aspect of web accessibility it is easy to lose sight of the momentum that is building rapidly. With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to briefly review what has been happening in the recent past. What I share below are thumbnail sketches of legal complaints and resolutions that affect web accessibility in higher education since 2009. If I have missed anything and you have other complaints or resolutions to share, please add your comments below. I am hopeful that this can be useful to those trying to find this content in one place.

(Feb) 2009- Law School Admissions Council

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a complaint against the LSAC (Law School Admissions Council) under the Disabled Persons Act, California Civil Code &#167&#167 54 et seq., and the Unruh Civil Rights Act, California Civil Code §§ 51 et seq for inaccessible web content and LSAT preparation materials. Law schools across the nation use the LSAC web portal as a mechanism for students to apply for admission to law school. The California plaintiffs complained that the inaccessibility of the Pennsylvania-based website portal complicated their ability to apply for law school and denied them their rights under ADA Titles II and III. The April 2011 settlement included an agreement to make web content and services conform to WCAG 2.0 AA within 5 months (by September of 2011).

This suit had a collateral effect as NFB filed complaints with the Department of Justice against institutions that use the inaccessible LSAC process as their primary means of admissions. This happened over several months during the Spring of 2010. NFB argued that this practice violated Title III of the ADA. These schools included:

  1. Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School
  2. Cardozo School of Law
  3. Chapman University School of Law
  4. University of Chicago School of Law
  5. University of Denver
  6. Gonzaga University School of Law
  7. Lee University School of Law
  8. Northeastern University School of Law
  9. Sturm College of Law
  10. Thomas Jefferson School of Law
  11. University of California Hastings College of the Law
  12. University of Miami School of Law
  13. Washington School of Law
  14. William Mitchell College of Law
  15. Whittier College Law School
  16. Yeshiva University

Settlements with institutions (e.g., See the John Marshall settlement) included an institutional requirement to notify students that the LSAC application process is not accessible and to stop using LSAC if accessibility agreements were not met by LSAC on the approved timeline. Also, schools are to fully consider applications that do not come through the LSAC process.

(June) 2009- Kindle DX

Both the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) filed a discrimination complaint against Arizona State University for using inaccessible technologies (i.e., Kindle DX). Other institutions were drawn into this complaint. Namely Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Pace University in New York City and Reed College in Portland, Ore. These complaints were settled in January of 2010 and those institutions agreed not to use emerging technologies that were not accessible.

However the dispute created a clarion call from the U.S. government to leadership in higher education. The Executive branch (i.e., the White House) sent a letter to every college and university president across the nation on the important issue of digital accessibility. This letter, written jointly by the Departments of Justice and Education and indicated:

Technology is the hallmark of the future, and technological competency is essential to preparing all students for future success. Emerging technologies are an educational resource that enhances learning for everyone, and perhaps especially for students with disabilities. Technological innovations have opened a virtual world of commerce, information, and education to many individuals with disabilities for whom access to the physical world remains challenging. Ensuring equal access to emerging technology in university and college classrooms is a means to the goal of full integration and equal educational opportunity for this nation’s students with disabilities…

The letter further admonished decision-makers in higher education by concluding; “It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students.”

(Nov) 2010- Penn State

The NFB filed a complaint against Penn State University stating that the institution violated the rights of both students and faculty who were blind by denying them information and services available to others on the web and guaranteed to them under Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. They called out several units across the institution (e.g., they highlighted the library, the English and Computer Science departments, and also their Office of Disability Services). This was resolved in 2011 and Penn State agreed, as part of the settlement to “continue to work on implementing a strategy to make all electronic and information technology systems used on its campuses fully accessible to blind students, faculty and staff.”

(March) 2011- Northwestern University and New York University

The NFB filed a complaint against two universities for using the Google framework at their institutions, when the product was not accessible. While Google is working to make its platform more accessible, it has yet to complete this task. This is reverberating at other campuses that are struggling to address the issue of accessibility requirements during the procurement process.

(June) 2011 Florida State University

The NFB filed a complaint on behalf of 2 blind students who had not found a satisfactory resolution to inaccessible course content. In this instance it was a math class that was not accessible to them. This was resolved in spring of 2012. In addition to FSU’s agreement to make content accessible, they were required to pay damages to the plaintiffs.

(Sept) 2012 University of Montana

The Alliance for Disability and Students filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights noting discrimination because of inaccessible web content and services. In the complaint several specific items were targeted including inaccessible class assignments, inaccessible live chat and discussion board, videos without captions, and an inaccessible registration system.

Other recent complaints that have implications for higher education:

  1. 2010- National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed a complaint that Netflix engaged in discrimination by denying captions on materials that are streamed online. Their 2012 settlement includes a provision to caption all streamed media by 2014. Netflix will also pay $755,000 in legal fees.
  2. (Feb) 2012 – Greater Los Angles Agency on Deafness (GLAD) filed a complaint against CNN for failing to provide captions on CNN.com. CNN sought to dismiss the suit as an infringement of their first amendment rights to free speech; this is because the current errors inherent in captioning would cause CNN to create erroneous speech not in line with their editorial standards. In March, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California disagreed, and ruled against CNN. This case continues on appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
  3. The Authors Guild filed a complaint against multiple universities (i.e., University of California, University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Cornell University and University of Michigan) for copyright infringement when they scanned and placed books into the HathiTrust Digital Library (used by Google for digital texts). In October of 2012, a US District Court dismissed the suit and indicated that digitizing works at a university does not violate fair use. This ruling is seen as transformative by web accessibility advocacy groups because it contains the Chafee amendment to the Copyright Act; this amendment indicates that you are exempted from copyright law if you are duplicating materials for use with those who are blind or have disabilities. In the past some have argued that digitizing texts for use by those with disabilities is in fact a violation of copyright law. Unless challenged, the judge’s ruling has put that to rest. Fair use where digitizing text is involved currently includes:
    • preservation of books,
    • criticism,
    • commentary,
    • news reporting,
    • teaching,
    • scholarship
    • research purposes,
    • use by people with disabilities.

One thing is clear, until all students, staffs, and faculties with disabilities have full access to digital content those in higher education will continue to see complaints and legal action. Waiting for a student to bring forth a complaint may no longer be an action that those in leadership are willing to take. With that said, a transformation of an institution’s web architecture to one that is accessible is not easy, and it takes time. GOALS is one of many groups with resources that can make this process easier.