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In recent years, there has been an increased awareness of the need for digital accessibility in higher education. Most universities have built systems to deliver virtual lectures and enable students to access digital study materials and submit their coursework online. And the ADA’s requirement for universities to comply with digital accessibility standards has been in place since 1998.
Growing digitization in institutions of higher education
Most universities these days don't rely solely on in-person instruction through in-class studying, lectures, and research labs. They expect students to access educational services through their in-house digital platforms.
Many universities have developed mobile applications that enable students to schedule one-on-one meetings with their professors, check when their next lecture is, book a workspace at the library, and handle other tasks. Lectures are often recorded and shared virtually. This is good for students with disabilities because they can participate online even when they can't attend in person.
But this increased reliance on digitization in higher education also highlights the need for greater digital accessibility. When universities take steps to comply with the established digital accessibility standards, it empowers students with disabilities with more control over the learning process, gives them the ability to access instructional programs at their convenience, allows for greater flexibility in learning, and reduces stress.
Addressing the gaps in digital equity in higher education
Higher educational institutions should pursue digital equity using a systemic framework and avoid complex, confusing processes. Students with ADHD, dyslexia, learning challenges, and other cognitive differences can benefit from digital content with a clear and consistent structure.
A simplified user interface, short blocks of text, and clear hints or instructions that support navigation can make digital educational content more accessible. The use of animation and flashing should be minimal to reduce the risk of triggering epileptic seizures. Digital content and tools should be compatible with screen reader software.
Improving document accessibility for college students
Poor use of color in instructional content can fail to communicate important course information to students with some visual impairments. Pay attention to content structure and contrast to make the digital content more discernible for students with dyslexia.
Universities use PDF files extensively, and creating accessible PDF files is a complicated process. Students with visual or cognitive impairment may use screen readers, screen magnifiers, text-to-speech apps, and refreshable braille, among other tools, to comprehend PDF files. Professional expertise is necessary to ensure PDF documents are compatible with these assistive technologies.
The legal risks of ignoring digital accessibility in higher education
Section 504 of the American Rehabilitation Act states that people with disabilities should not be denied benefits, be excluded from program participation, or face discrimination under any activity or program receiving federal financial assistance. This is one of the laws that colleges and universities must follow when designing digital platforms and solutions for their students.
Institutions of higher education also have a legal obligation to provide digital access to all students under the American Disabilities Act (ADA). In recent years, more universities have faced lawsuits under the ADA, resulting in substantial financial damages for the at-fault institutions.
One well-known lawsuit in this context involves Miami University and its online course provider Edx, which failed to provide accommodations such as braille alternatives and speech-to-text software to Aleeha Dudley, a student with visual impairment. The lawsuit forced Miami University to provide appropriate accommodations.
In another lawsuit against Edx, the courts held the online education platform liable for failing to provide captions for digital courses, thereby discriminating against students with hearing impairment. Edx was forced to make its online courses accessible as part of the settlement.
Universities need to invest in digital accessibility
Regardless of the legal risks, many universities still don't provide sufficient digital accessibility. A 2019 study found that digital content was inaccessible on over 70% of all university writing center websites.
While it is hard to predict the rapidly-changing technological landscape, one clear thing is that digital accessibility will only become more important in higher education. Universities and other higher education institutions should take steps to conform to the widely accepted digital accessibility standards.