Accessibility Blueprint: Developing your strategy for equal access

Concurrent Session 7 & 8 (combined)
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

How accessible is the technology that you use on your campus?  Is your answer a confident, “I have no idea.”  Let’s draw a blueprint for a more accessible campus.  Accessibility and disability services professionals will share steps, tips, tricks and resources to tackle accessibility across campus to ensure equal access.


Kelly Hermann is the Vice President of Accessibility, Equity & Inclusion for the University of Phoenix. She has oversight of the university's accessibility initiative, including the evaluation and remediation of curricular resources, and disability services office. Prior to joining the University of Phoenix, Kelly was the director of disability services for SUNY Empire State College where she coordinated accommodations for students. She frequently presents at national conferences, such as the Online Learning Consortium, WCET and the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) regarding online learning and accessibility for students with disabilities. She also chairs the standing committee on online and distance education for AHEAD and was the chair of AHEAD’s standing committee on public policy from 2009 to 2013.

Extended Abstract

Many of us are aware that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are civil rights laws that protect the rights of students and employees with disabilities on college campuses.  We know to refer students who need accommodations to our disability services’ offices on campus.  We know that we can’t intentionally or unintentionally discriminate against a students with a disability.  And if we do, we know that our college can face a lawsuit or federal complaint by a student who was improperly served.

So, it was of no surprise that a joint blog published by OLC and WCET in April 2017 identified accessibility of online courses as one of the top reasons online educators are losing sleep at night.  And for good reason.  Since 2010, the federal government, through both the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education, has been very active investigating accessibility complaints and concerns at institutions of higher education.  Investigations are stressful, costly and anxiety provoking as violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 can lead to fines and a loss of eligibility for federal funds, including Title IV funding.

In 2010, DOJ and OCR released a joint Dear Colleague Letter to college and university presidents in the immediate aftermath of the Kindle lawsuits and complaints filed by the National Federation of the Blind on behalf of students at five colleges and universities.  These colleges had agreed to partner with Amazon to pilot the use of the Kindle DX with students for textbook materials.  Unfortunately, the Kindle DX did not include accessibility features that would allow students with low or no vision to access the content.  Since the provisions of the ADA and Section 504 do not directly apply to retail establishments such as Amazon, action had to be taken against colleges and universities to influence Amazon to make accessibility improvements in their Kindle products.

The Dear Colleague letter set a very high bar for accessibility in educational technology.  Specific expectations highlighted included:

  1. Pilot programs with educational technology are to be accessible, regardless of whether or not a student with a disability participates;
  2. Alternative access plans or accommodations are to afford the student with a disability the opportunity “to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions and enjoy the same services” as a student without a disabilities “with substantially equivalent ease of use;”
  3. Procurement of educational and information technology should ensure that accessibility is considered and prioritized.

Since 2010, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has completed investigations at the University of Cincinnati, Louisiana Technical University, the South Carolina Technical Community College System, Youngstown State University and the University of Phoenix related to the use of educational and information technology and/or website accessibility.  Consistently, OCR has required colleges to agree to the following provisions when negotiating resolution agreements:

  • Adoption of the WCAG 2.0 AA, ARIA, WCAG2ICT and DAISY standards;
  • Mandatory accessibility training for all university faculty and staff on an annual basis;
  • Identification of information technology accessibility coordinators with sufficient expertise and authority to monitor and enforce accessibility standards;
  • Remediation of inaccessible content and resources, typically within an 18 month timeframe;
  • Remedy to the complainant, often including financial restitution and opportunity to enroll in courses at no cost.

As a result of these trends, colleges and universities have been searching for ways to ensure their online courses and programs are accessible for students with disabilities.  And while there is some guidance from OCR, the bulk of this work is happening in absence of clear standards and rules specifying how to achieve full accessibility.  In 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) had posted an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding the agency’s intention to issue regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for web accessibility.  The actual rules were delayed multiple times and in 2016, DOJ withdrew the 2010 advanced notice of proposed rulemaking and instead issued a Supplemental Notice of Rulemaking.  This indicates that DOJ was seeking additional comments and input regarding web accessibility regulations.  It also indicates that these proposed regulations are not ready to be published so clarification of expectations and clear standards on what constitutes legal accessibility for web activities are not on the horizon.  However, the proposed rulemaking activity was curtailed in January 2018 when the Trump administration took over and no further conversations have resulted in regulations, despite calls from Congress and others.

Despite the lack of clear and legally enforceable standards, OCR has made it clear that compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Level AA criteria represents a reasonable level of accessibility that allows students to receive the same information, engage in the same interactions and enjoy the same services as their non-disabled peers.  In addition, the US Access Board refreshed the Section 508 guidelines in 2018 to be consistent with the WCAG standards.  While Section 508 only applies to the activities of the federal government, several states have also adopted 508 as state law therefore the reach of the WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines will only grow.  But the standards can’t exist in a vacuum and aren’t always easy for the happy end user of technology to consume and understand.  So, what are colleges and universities to do?

Our presenters may not have all of the answers but they are professionals who have “been there, done that” and have committed to accessibility at the University of Phoenix.  In June 2015, the University signed a resolution agreement with the Office for Civil Rights regarding the accessibility of digital content and resources.  This lead to a widespread accessibility initiative and created change across the University, from disability services to educational technology and marketing and IT.  We will share best practices that work not only for a large, mostly online university but also for smaller institutions with fewer online offerings.

As a result of this session, participants will:

  1. understand the role accessibility standards occupy in the design and delivery of online learning;
  2. examine potential policy and practice implications of recent federal cases regarding accessibility;
  3. identify campus stakeholders integral to building a culture of accessibility across the institution;
  4. learn how to implement practical and relevant accessibility training and professional development;
  5. and determine how to build accessibility planning and evaluation into regular course design practices and procedures.

The goal of the session is to share practical, relevant steps and resources that attendees can immediately apply upon returning to campus.  These steps will relate to curriculum design and delivery, accommodations of students with disabilities, vetting of content and tools for conformance with accessibility standards and professional development for faculty and staff.  Policy considerations will be woven throughout all conversations.  Attendees will be encourages to share their own experiences and resources that they have found helpful as well.