This article was originally published as “Promoting Accessibility in the Context of 21st-Century Higher Education,” in Transforming Higher Ed, an EDUCAUSE Review blog, on March 9, 2018.
One of the emerging frontiers in postsecondary education is digital education. In 2015, President Obama announced America’s College Promise (ACP), a program aimed at providing two free years of college to all Americans. Beneath the public conversation about free and affordable access to education is an implication that institutions are prepared to serve all students, including those with physical or cognitive disabilities. The imperative to make colleges and universities more widely available further speaks to emerging ways of teaching and learning, because, as noted by Dan Berrett in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “technology has embedded itself in the everyday classroom, in hybrid courses and through the learning-management systems used in face-to-face settings.” However, online learning is implicit in Berrett’s article — and it presents additional challenges for supporting students with disabilities.
Yet in this new age of higher education, not all institutions are compliant with guidelines for digitally accessible learning. Many institutions are providing the necessary accommodations when students with disabilities come forward with a need, but developing technologies and learning environments to be accessible would be a better approach. In August 2016, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) opened an investigation against the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). According to the DOJ, UC Berkeley was in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for producing inaccessible content in their public MOOCs (massive online open courses). Title II is designed to protect persons with disabilities in public institutions. In this case, videos were not prepared for users with visual or hearing impairments. The DOJ action also highlighted inequalities within the existing accessibility policy for UC Berkeley’s online content.
Similarly, in February 2015, Harvard and MIT were sued by advocates for the deaf because those institutions were not providing captioning for videos. Such lawsuits are becoming common, and they raise awareness about the challenges and importance of providing inclusive education. They also highlight the responsibility of the institution to meet compliance needs for different types of students across varied learning environments.
One recent piece of proposed legislation that might benefit access to higher education for persons of any ability is the Technology, Equality, and Accessibility in College and Higher Education Act (TEACH Act), which, according to one analysis, is “intended to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to instructional technology used by a postsecondary school.” More specifically, it directs the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) to develop accessibility guidelines for electronic instructional materials and related information technologies — especially digital content and online learning platforms. This proposed legislation provides the kind of thoughtful leadership necessary to make education available to the broadest possible audiences. While the TEACH Act represents a great step forward, it remains in committee review.
What the above lawsuits and proposed legislation underscore is the importance of accessible learning environments in the new world of postsecondary education, where online education is ascendant. However, it seems that institutions are operating from laws with outdated (and sometimes vague) guidelines that are not intended for distance education. Policymakers must continue to advocate for changes to existing law and push higher education institutions to adequately address the needs of students with disabilities in 21st-century learning environments. Furthermore, institutions have a responsibility to adopt new policies and procedures while lawmakers improve legislation.
Despite a good-faith effort to be accessible, some universities are often unprepared to support students with disabilities online. While policy is a guiding force, institutional will is equally as important; as such, measures such as designating a university accessibility officer, working with instructional designers, organizing awareness training for faculty and administrators, and implementing technology that meets compliance are other vital considerations for practitioners. Colleges and universities will benefit from an accessibility roadmap to further guide policy and practice.
Evan Silberman serves as Director of IT Partnerships and Community Relationships at New York University.