Digital Accessibility For Higher Education

  • 26.05.2023

What is digital accessibility?

Digital accessibility refers to the inclusive mindset and practice of removing obstacles that hinder persons with disabilities from interacting with or using digital products and services, such as websites, web applications, and other digital tools and technology.

The goal of digital accessibility is to make content fully available to and usable by as many people as possible, including people with disabilities. It enables inclusion and ensures inclusive communication for all people, regardless of their gender, age, ability, or location.

Digital accessibility recognizes that people spanning the full range of human experience need technology. Some people cannot hear video content, see a screen, hold a mouse, or complete tasks quickly. It also recognizes the right of all people to fully participate in today’s work environment.

Information and communication technology (ICT) presents obstacles for people with disabilities if it is not digitally accessible. Simply put, without digital accessibility, people with disabilities are denied the chance to fully participate in all aspects of life, including possibilities for higher education.

Why digital accessibility in higher education?

Higher education encompasses all post-secondary instruction, training, and advice on conducting original research at academic institutions, including universities and colleges. The quality of higher education typically defines the quality of a country’s human resources, making this degree of education the foundation of any society.

Higher education students must be able to access and interact with their course materials and content if they are to effectively engage in their studies, training, and research. Digital accessibility allows students with disabilities to achieve the same outcomes as their peers without disabilities.

Regardless of ability, colleges and universities have a responsibility to educate all students who choose to enroll there. This includes offering accessible educational content, including websites, platforms, and content. Higher education institutions run the danger of putting up hurdles to education for students with disabilities and opening themselves up to legal action if they choose not to embrace digital accessibility.

What does digital accessibility refer to in higher education?

Digital accessibility in higher education refers to the availability of electronic tools and resources that are usable by all students, including those who have disabilities.

Accessible electronic resources and tools make it possible for students with disabilities to explore, comprehend, and utilize course information, such as lectures, notes, and presentations, in ways that best meet their needs.

How COVID-19 opened the lid on the inaccessibility of higher education

The COVID-19 pandemic forced learning institutions to adopt online learning practices. This led to an evolution in how the institutions view digital accessibility, particularly because of the essence of converting educational content to online resources for students to access.

It was during this rush to keep curricula ongoing that the institutions encountered the reality that providing accessible content required deeper reflection and consideration of the access needs of students with different kinds of disabilities.

While many institutions of higher learning have the best intentions of ensuring their digital education tools and resources are accessible to all their students, WebAIM2, which analyzes just the homepages of websites, has established that 96.8% of the top websites worldwide have Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) errors.

If top websites have this extent of accessibility challenges on their homepages alone, what is the situation on the rest of the websites’ pages, or with the websites that don’t make it as top websites?

Given that after COVID-19, online learning tools and platforms became a common reality in many education institutions, an analysis of about 58,000 home pages of these institutions, including higher education institutions, was conducted for digital accessibility based on the ADA Section 508 compliance standards.

The websites were found to have an average of roughly 45% mistakes on each page. Dotedu (.edu) website domains had one of the lowest mistake rates among top-level domains used by US-based schools, at 30.1% per page. This suggests that failure to follow established accessibility standards and guidelines poses an immediate risk to higher education institutions.

Digital accessibility for higher education is about compliance with standards

Creating digital solutions that accommodate all users of a digital asset, whether or not they have disabilities, is the goal of digital accessibility for higher education.

Many users of digital tools and platforms for higher education don’t require any special modifications; instead, they tend to favor the methods of learning that have given them the best results in the past. Therefore, putting accessibility first enables all students to study. The Department of Justice has released web accessibility guidelines for state and local governments as well as public institutions to help them make their websites accessible to users with disabilities and to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, which serves as evidence of the importance of digital accessibility in higher education in the U.S.

The ADA is a civil rights law in the United States that forbids discrimination against people with disabilities in a number of contexts, including employment, public accommodations, and access to state and local government programs and services.

All state and local governmental entities, including schools and universities, are subject to Title II of the ADA. Title II states that no one with a handicap will be subjected to discrimination or excluded from any services, programs, or activities of a public institution.

Similar to this, Title III of the ADA requires equal access to and enjoyment of all accommodations offered by any place of public accommodation, including private institutions of higher learning.

Higher education schools that receive federal funding must also adhere to Section 508 rules in addition to the ADA regulations.

Section 508 requirements for higher education

Key standards for achieving digital accessibility in higher education are provided by Section 508. They consist of the following:

  • Built-in accommodations, including closed captions, descriptive narrations, and interface designs or content layouts that are accessible to industry standard assistive technology.

  • Same level of communication and course-taking experience for students with and without disabilities.

  • Provision of content in alternative formats preferred by the students, including large print, electronic text, etc.

  • Updating existing material to make it more accessible.

  • Everyone in the higher education institution shares responsibility for accessibility.

  • Maximum opportunity to access educational resources anytime and anywhere without the need for outside assistance.

Criteria for auditing Section 508-compliance for higher education websites

If you are wondering whether your higher education institution satisfies Section 508 accessibility criteria, you should consider performing an audit of the site to help you better scale its accessibility if barriers exist.

To be Section 508 compliant, a site should satisfy the following criteria:

  • A text equivalent should be provided for a non-text element.

  • Equivalent alternatives should be provided for any multimedia presentations, and should be synched with the presentation.

  • The information conveyed in color should also be made available without color.

  • Electronic forms should be designed to allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionalities so as to complete and submit the form, including directions and cues.

  • Text links should be provided for each active region of a server-side image map.

  • When utilizing scripting languages to display content or create interface elements, the information provided by the script should be identified with functional text so that it can be read with assistive technology.

  • All available documents should be readable without an associated style sheet.

  • Row and column headers should be identified for data tables.

  • Markups should be used to associate data cells and header cells for data tables with two or more logical levels of row and column headers.

  • Frames should be titled with text that facilitates frame identification and navigation.

  • Pages should be designed in a way to avoid causing the screen to flicker.

  • Text-only pages with equivalent and up-to-date information should be provided when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way.

  • If a web page requires an applet, plugin, or other application to be present to interpret page content, the page should provide a link to a plug-in or applet.

  • A way to be provided to permit users to skip repetitive navigation links.

  • When a timed out response is required, the user should be alerted and given sufficient time to indicate whether more time is needed.

Some of the prominent lawsuits against leading higher education entities

If you don’t pursue digital accessibility for your educational digital tools and materials, your higher education institution could face legal consequences. With many higher education institutions introducing online courses, an increase in accessibility litigation is anticipated.

The National Association of the Deaf sued Harvard University in 2015 for either failing to close caption public web content or for allegedly supplying erroneous closed captions where none existed. Harvard University is just one of the colleges and universities that have been sued.

A blind man by the name of Jason Camacho filed a lawsuit against 50 organizations in 2019 for a variety of accessibility issues, from the absence of alternative text to interruptions that confused his screen reader technology.

Arturo Stevez, a prospective student, filed a lawsuit against Syracuse University in 2021, alleging that the university’s website posed major obstacles to the application process for people who use screen readers.

Get help with testing 508-compliance for your higher education digital assets

Embrace the challenge of digital accessibility to meet the needs of all your current and prospective students. While many higher education institutions are driven by the fear of legal repercussions as the driving force toward digital accessibility, let that be secondary to you.

ADACP can help you develop the motivation to support all students’ experiential higher education as your primary drive toward aspiring for digital accessibility. We will help you with all of your Section 508 and ADA testing and make sure that all of your digital learning tools and resources are accessible. Call (626) 486-2201 now to find out how we can assist.