Going Beyond Compliance in Higher Education Accessibility

Published November 10, 2020

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first civil rights law enacted to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. While the law opened the door to equal access in programs that receive federal funding, the ADA and ADAAA have since expanded that coverage. As a result, colleges and universities, despite funding sources, are required to ensure students with disabilities receive academic accommodations.

For most students with a disability entering college, they will encounter a disability services office at the start of their freshman year, and they will engage in an interactive process to assess reasonable accommodations necessary for equal access to education. What if, though, those students could enter their freshman year and have many of those accommodations already in place as a standard practice?

You can strive for more than minimum compliance

Disabilities and how they impact a person is unique to each individual. Depending on the type of limitation, though, there are resources and accommodations that can benefit individuals with similar disabilities. With this in mind, there are ways universities and colleges can create equal access from the start. Here are five of those ways:

Captioning videos and media

One of the easiest ways to create an accessible video or media is to add captioning. Captioning, while traditionally thought of as an accessibility tool for deaf and hard of hearing, can also benefit individuals with various learning disabilities such as auditory processing disorders. When considering adding captions to videos, be sure to use a tool that can verify accuracy, or have someone individually confirm the captions are correct.

Accessible PDFS, Word Documents, and PowerPoints

For many students with blindness or visual disabilities, screen readers are instrumental to reading and reviewing content. When documents, including Word, PDFs, and PowerPoints are created without accessibility in mind, students will encounter barriers to reading the documents with their screen readers. By creating an accessible document from the start, this will mitigate the potential for students to encounter barriers to reading. While creating an accessible document requires some specific steps at inception, Microsoft’s support page provides a step by step guide for document creators to follow.

Make presentations and outlines available online

Note taking in college is one of the most critical aspects to learning class material. For students with cognitive, hearing, or physical impairments, among others, taking adequate notes in class can be challenging. By having faculty post note outlines or guided-notes online this can ease the amount of note-taking required. An online or electronic format can also enable students to use note-taking technology that may be easier for them than handwriting notes.

Audio and video recording of lectures

There are times when a student’s disability is going to prevent them coming to class. Although posting notes online can help them remain current on content, recording lectures through services such as Tegrity can allow students to remain engaged and be a part of the class when they’re unable to be there in person. As some students may acquire their disability at any point in the semester, having these recordings as standard practice could reduce the delays students might experience when trying to arrange for their accommodation.

Electronic format for books

While books are certainly a necessity, students with physical disabilities may encounter barriers to carrying them across campus and bringing them to class. Although not every textbook will be available in an electronic format or e-book, universities can work with publishers to determine which books are available in alternative format. In turn, faculty can provide this information on their syllabi. By allowing students to use e-books, they can house them in one device such as a computer or e-reader, and this can mitigate additional barriers for students with physical disabilities.

Doing what’s right might mean doing more than what’s required

For a student entering college for the first time, they are going to encounter a host of new experiences and challenges. In many regards, students with disabilities will face more challenges than their peers when navigating this new world on their own. The more administrators can do to lessen those challenges and create accessibility from the start, the greater the experience they can develop for students with disabilities. For more on resources for students with disabilities in higher education, consider reviewing the Association on Higher Education and Disability.