Accessibility Tips for Higher Education

 In Articles, Education, PDF Accessibility

a male and female college student smile at a laptop screen while working in a university library

How is your institution addressing the requirement to have documents on your website and your courses (including those in your e-learning portal) accessible? 

College student in a wheelchair with headphones on, typing on a keyboardAccording to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11% of undergrad students are affected by some type of disability. That number increases to 14.5% when it comes to students enrolled in Vocational or Technical schools, and increases even more, up to almost 16% for students over the age of 30.  

Higher Education Accessibility Law

Meanwhile, in recent years, there’s been an increasing number of lawsuits filed against colleges, universities. Perhaps even your institution got their “nastygram” from the OCR (Office of Civil Rights). Sparing all the details, in most cases, the big offenders were inaccessible websites or apps, inaccessible classroom materials, not providing necessary accommodations and inaccessible textbooks! As a result, colleges and universities are now not only tasked with meeting accessibility needs but they’ve also been hit with some hefty fines. And we all know funding is often an issue in higher education.  

What are the laws that relate to higher education? 

Section 504 of the American Rehabilitation Act is a one. Basically, this says that people with disabilities shall not be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. (In standards and legal writing, “shall” is big. There’s “should,” “may,” and “shall.”  When standards, for example, say that something “should” be done a certain way, that’s like a “best practice” but it provides some wiggle room. Similarly for “may.”  When they use “shall,” however, that means “you’ve got to do it this way.”)   

In addition, while the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) focuses primarily on the accessibility of physical locations (among other things), Title III is very clear in its wording that one of the “Places of Accommodation” are “Places of Education.” Not only schools but also courses and examinations shall be offered in a way that’s accessible to people with disabilities. Furthermore, to quote from the DOJ’s 2010 Guidance and Section by Section Analysis, “When the ADA was enacted in 1990, the Internet was unknown to most of the public. Today, the Internet plays a critical role in daily life for personal, civic, commercial and business purposes. Ensuring nondiscriminatory access to the goods and services offered through the websites of covered entities can play a significant role in fulfilling the goals of the ADA. Although the language of the ADA does not explicitly mention the Internet, the Department (of Justice) has taken the position that title III covers access to websites of public accommodations.” [Emphasis added.]     

Now you’re convinced – your websites, electronic assets, and, yes, your documents need to be accessible. But campuses are huge and there’s a LOT of documents there. Maybe you have a lot of PDFs embedded in your eLearning courses as well. Maybe now you’re wondering, “What do we do?!”   

6 Accessibility Tips for Higher Education:  

  1. Get some evangelists on campus who can help spread the word. But, don’t just come with the problem – offer a solution.
  2. Contact colleagues at other campuses to see how they’ve addressed the situation. Many colleges and universities have done a lot of great work toward document accessibility.  
  3. Run a pilot program at your school to get things started. You don’t have to have all the answers right out of the gate – you’ll learn as you go. 
  4. Find the “highest priority” documents, test them, and get them fixed first. If people can easily find inaccessible content, then you’re an easier target. 
  5. Take a proactive approach to document accessibility. If you create accessible documents from the start then you don’t have to spend the time, energy and money to fix them. 
  6. Get the software, tools and training needed to help with the job. 

Accessibility Resources 

There are a lot of great resources out there. When it comes to document accessibility, CommonLook has you covered every step of the way with the tools to test PDFs, create accessible PDFs, to remediate the documents that are already out there, and the training to help you be successful at every phase. In fact, specifically designed with higher education in mind, CommonLook’s Campus 101 program provides the software and training all in one convenient and affordable package!   

Check out our website, contact us for more information, or even visit us at the DevLearn Conference, October 24-26 in Las Vegas, Accessing Higher Ground conference this coming November, and/or at the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference in March, 2019.

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