Section 508 Accessibility for e-Learning: The Facts Every Educational Institution Needs to Know

  • 21.07.2023

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    A review of the 50-year-old Section 508 law

    The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 marked 50 years since its enactment in 2023. The law, which was created to defend the rights of those with disabilities, was a historic piece of civil rights legislation. The act prohibits limiting access to services or benefits on the basis of disability for government organizations and any institutions receiving federal support.

    When Section 508 was initially enacted, it mandated that the federal government’s entire technological and informational infrastructure be accessible for people with disabilities. However, the law’s specificity and breadth have evolved throughout time as a result of modifications and judicial interpretations.

    It is widely acknowledged that learning institutions, particularly colleges and universities, are subject to its requirements under Title II because they almost universally receive some form of federal funding, despite the fact that Section 508’s original intent was to provide accessibility in the federal sector. This makes Section 508 accessibility—especially in information and communication technology (ICT)—one of the most difficult issues for higher education to identify and take proactive measures to address.

    A major concern that is costing educational institutions billions of dollars in legal fees and payment for damages related to Section 508 non-compliance is the challenge of Section 508 accessibility in higher education, especially in the area of e-learning. This is supported by the dramatic increase in Section 508 compliance complaints and lawsuits over the past few years.

    What is Section 508 accessibility for e-learning programs?

    E-learning courses are deemed 508 accessible if they are equally useful for learners with disabilities and those without disabilities. The demands of all learners utilizing the platform must be taken into consideration in order to enable comparable access to the educational resources offered on it.

    True Section 508-compliant e-learning programs accommodate a variety of learners with disabilities, including colorblindness, seizure propensity, and physical restrictions that require keyboard navigation rather than mouse use, among others.

    It’s a prevalent misperception that compliance with accommodation regulations covers accessibility. For instance, teachers of online courses can feel that it is not their job to give students who are watching a video in the course transcripts or subtitles. Instead, they might point students toward the office for accommodations at the school in order to deliver the material in a way that will be more useful to them. The provision of alternative text for films is a 508 accessibility issue, not an accommodation, though.

    Considerations for 508-accessibility for e-learning programs ought to be proactive, not to be confused with the mandate to provide legal accommodations as outlined in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. 508 accessibility is the responsibility of all who create or public e-learning digital content and should be provided for all learners with no expectation of an explanation of need. It should also be expected for disabilities that are easily anticipated.

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      Putting accessibility issues at the forefront

      While many educational institutions are aware of their need to offer accessible online learning materials to students who have been diagnosed with disabilities, understanding and familiarity with the Section 508 requirements are sometimes insufficient. Awareness of this issue is, however, growing as a result of the recent rise in well-publicized complaints and litigation against non-compliant educational institutions.

      Every educational institution should be aware that many advocates of website 508 compliance have embraced the cause of guaranteeing complete online accessibility for all educational institutions. Consequently, as of October 2017, it was known that one such activist had personally filed 1,800 complaints targeting institutions ranging from large colleges to elementary schools.

      Public-facing websites, the most popular platforms for e-learning programs, have been a growing target of these complaints. The complaints seek to guarantee that learners with disabilities can access online course materials on websites that adhere to all ADA requirements.

      ADA Section 508 complaints and lawsuits appear to be getting traction, with many learning institutions scrambling to bring their public-facing websites up to compliance and, in some cases, taking them down until they can. This indicates that the institutions are coming to terms with the fact that they ought to be accountable, not just to learners but to the public at large.

      Every educational institution needs to understand that complying with Section 508 requirements cannot be an afterthought. It should be incorporated into every stage of the creation of an e-learning program, including the creation of public-facing e-learning websites for educational institutions.

      ADA Section 508 lawsuits and complaints are nothing new to educational institutions and are not limited to content on the institutions’ public-facing websites. This does not dampen the spirits of 508 compliance activists and duty-bearers. For instance, a review of prior 508 non-compliance cases demonstrates that the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education are willing to enforce Section 508 accessibility on all educational institutions and take the accessibility of learner-facing resources in ICT extremely seriously.

      It is noteworthy that though Section 508 was previously unclear as to the expectations for accessibility, the updated Section 508 accessibility requirements add specific web standards to adhere to, specifically the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 level AA developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

      Making your e-learning website Section 508 compliant

      Section 508 plays a significant role in web accessibility and what is lawfully required for educational institutions and other organizations with public-facing websites.

      According to the WCAG 2.0 Level AA design criteria for web accessibility, learners with disabilities are ensured access to information and services through websites that are perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. It shows that users with screen readers, keyboard-only navigation, and other assistive technology can access the digital resources.

      Particular elements are required under the Section 508 and WCAG accessibility standards in order to achieve accessibility on public-facing websites, including e-learning platforms used by educational institutions. The elements include, among others, resizable elements, captions and transcripts for audio and video files, text alternative descriptions for photos, and great color contrast between text and website backgrounds.

      Contact us at (626) 486-2201 or schedule a consult if you need assistance with 508 accessibility or solutions for the problems overlays have found in your e-learning website. We can help you change the website’s accessibility settings or completely reorient it to make it 508-compliant.