In 2018, 50 colleges and universities were taken to court in one fell swoop. The reason? Accessibility.
All it took was attending one college fair for a legally blind man to discover that the websites of more than four dozen higher education institutions were inaccessible to people with disabilities.
Cornell University, Vanderbilt University, and Northeastern University were all hit, as were smaller schools such as Davidson College and Oberlin College. The spate of lawsuits was a major news event across the country, with institutions everywhere facing some serious penalties—and a lot of unwanted press attention.
Two years later, many universities are still struggling to make their websites accessible to all. With federal funding at stake, that’s a big problem. To lower your risk of noncompliance, it’s vitally important to pay close attention to what the law says about university websites and online content.
To help, we’ve pulled together a quick refresher on the need-to-know basics of laws governing website accessibility in higher education.
Understanding Section 508 compliance and WCAG 2.0
The first term you should become familiar with is “508 compliance.”
Most teams know about the Amercians with Disabilities Act (ADA), the broad law that requires equal access to services and information across public, private, and nonprofit entities. Far fewer, however, are equally familiar with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. It was amended in 1998 to include Section 508, which requires federal agencies to make electronic information accessible to people with disabilities.
While both ADA and Section 508 address accessibility, Section 508 is specific to information technology.
Here’s where things get really confusing: While the original intent of Section 508 was to govern website accessibility within the federal sector, it’s since been widely accepted that colleges and universities are also subject to the standards since they receive different forms of federal funding.
That means you’ll need to ensure the various components of your website can be easily used by people with disabilities, such as deafness, limited vision, and blindness.
If you’ve ever been asked to go back and add “alt text” to a website image, or if you’ve been tasked with finding a reliable vendor to create closed-captioning transcripts for your videos, you’ve already taken important steps to improve your website’s accessibility.
In addition to Section 508, your team should also get comfortable with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG. The WCAG 2.0 standards, set by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), are widely regarded as the best means for making your website accessible to all users.
Best practices for accessibility in higher education
Despite the critical importance of Section 508 and WCAG 2.0, many colleges and universities still lack formal policies around website accessibility. With so many different departments creating content to connect with higher education students, it can be remarkably difficult to consistently enforce a standard set of guidelines.
To help set teams on the right path, we recommend two key steps.
First, consult with others in the industry to see what different higher education institutions are doing to address accessibility. In addition to resources such as WebAim and OmniUpate, the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials (AEM) offers a set of quality indicators—including several that address accessibility in higher education specifically.
Next, take a look at the tools and technology you currently have in place.
Does your content management system equip you with the features and functions you need to make content easily available to all? Is your online form builder compatible with screen readers and other assistive technology?
For example, Formstack comes with built-in 508 compliance tools to warn users any time they attempt to include features that are not supported by assistive technology. Similar features should be the standard for any of the other solutions you use to build, manage, and update college or university websites.
If you have any concerns about the current state of your institution’s website, the time to act is now. Having the right tools and technology in place is one of the best ways to lower your risk for steep fines and the withholding of federal funds.