Proposed DOJ Regulations for Educational Institutions – Ensuring Web Accessibility for All
People today predominantly access any type of information and services online. So, considering this, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has taken a significant step toward ensuring users with disabilities have inclusive and equal access to government services.
The DOJ released this through the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) last month. The notice revolves around the vital aspect of web accessibility for public entities, particularly public colleges and universities.
This move created a digital environment where everyone can seamlessly access online resources, websites, and mobile applications.
The Essence of Web Accessibility
So, what exactly is the essence of web accessibility? Its essence revolves around the following:
1. Embracing Inclusivity
Web accessibility is about embracing inclusivity and ensuring individuals with disabilities have barrier-free access to digital spaces. And this in itself is much more than just creating user-friendly websites.
Web accessibility is more like a commitment to ensuring that the digital world is equally accessible to all, regardless of physical or cognitive capabilities.
2. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
At the heart of the recent NPRM, as always, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This federal law instigated the prohibition of discrimination against individuals with disabilities by public entities.
Through the act, users with disabilities were ensured they had equal access to all government services, programs, and activities. With websites and mobile applications extensions of government services in today’s digital age, they must be accessible to all.
Understanding the New Regulations Better and its Implications
Now that the essence of web accessibility in the NPRM is understood, it’s time to understand its ramifications. This broadly revolves around three sections:
1. Adhering to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
A cornerstone of the NPRM is the adoption of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines, developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), provide a comprehensive framework for creating accessible digital content.
It sets the guidelines public and government services must follow to ensure web compliance. And it is by adhering to WCAG that public colleges and universities pave the way for a more inclusive digital environment.
2. The Impact Felt on Community Colleges
It is community colleges, which are often at the forefront of accessible education, which are particularly affected by these regulations. According to the new rules, all community college websites and mobile applications must comply with WCAG standards.
The NPRM does acknowledge some content exceptions, such as third-party web content and secured postsecondary course content. However, it mandates that colleges will still have to put in the effort to ensure students with disabilities can easily access their course content accessibility.
3. Traversing the Road to Compliance
According to the NPRM, 90% of classes at community colleges will undergo a massive change within the next five years. They must make necessary changes to their course content to meet accessibility standards.
These changes are essential because of the varied enrolment trends the colleges can expect. There will be increased demand for individuals with various disabilities, including those with vision, hearing, dexterity, or cognitive impairments, seeking admission to community colleges.
Facilitating a smooth transition will lead to staggering compliance timelines. Nevertheless, most community colleges will need at least three years to implement the new regulations for non-exempt content.
Traversing the Journey towards Accessibility
The following steps go a long way toward making the journey towards accessibility so much easier and smoother.
A String of Collaborative Efforts
Ensuring web accessibility should be envisioned to be more of a collective endeavor. It is a process requiring the active participation of community college administrators, educators, and IT teams.
These collaborations will be essential in navigating the intricate terrain of compliance based on the DOJ’s regulations.
Focusing on Prioritizing Accessibility
Colleges should make it a point to consider website accessibility to be not just a regulatory obligation but also a moral imperative. This means that accessibility should be viewed as a top priority.
Prioritizing accessibility not only helps improve the educational institutions’ online visibility and accessibility. It can also help to create a more welcoming and inclusive learning environment for all students.
Inflict Relevant Training and Awareness
To meet the new requirements, colleges must start investing in accessibility training for their staff and faculty. This includes educating content creators, web developers, and educators on the principles of accessibility and how to implement them effectively.
Making Maximum Use of Technology
Technology proves to be a powerful ally in achieving web accessibility. Various tools and software are designed to assist individuals with disabilities. Colleges and institutions can integrate them into the numerous digital platforms and, in the process, make it easier for everyone to access online resources.
Gather and Make Notes of Feedback and Perspectives
The NPRM has now set the stage for change to maximize web accessibility. Community college administrators now play a vital role in shaping the outcome.
Comments on these proposed regulations are due to be given by October 3. This thus allows stakeholders to offer their insights and feedback.
The American Association of Community Colleges encourages and eagerly awaits perspectives from those actively addressing website accessibility issues.
The Consequences of Non-Compliance
Ensuring web accessibility is not just a legal requirement. It is also a strategic move for public entities, especially educational institutions like community colleges and universities.
Failing to meet these accessibility standards can have the following severe consequences, both legally and ethically:
1. Legal Consequence:
Unnecessary Lawsuits and Fines:
Non-compliance with accessibility regulations can lead to lawsuits, often resulting in hefty fines. Due to this, educational institutions risk being embroiled in costly legal battles that can drain their financial resources and damage their reputation.
Possible DOJ Investigations:
Let it be known that the DOJ actively investigates accessibility complaints. If your institution is found in violation, it may become the focus of investigations. These investigations may, in turn, result in consent decrees that require costly remediation efforts and ongoing monitoring.
Risk Losing Federal Funding:
Public colleges and universities risk losing federal funding if they do not comply with ADA regulations. This can, in turn, harm the institution’s ability to provide quality education and services to its students.
2. Ethical and Reputational Consequences
Beyond legal consequences, there is an ethical obligation to ensure that education and services are accessible to all. Failing to meet this obligation can tarnish an institution’s reputation and public image in two ways.
Inclusivity and Diversity:
Today’s students place lots of value and emphasis on inclusivity and diversity. It means that a lack of web accessibility can deter prospective students who seek an inclusive and accommodating learning environment from wanting to enroll in the institution.
Alumni and Donor Relations:
Graduates and donors may distance themselves from institutions that have accessibility issues. A negative reputation can have a detrimental effect on alumni relations and fundraising efforts.
The Professional Approach to Web Compliance
Given the complex and evolving nature of web accessibility, public entities must resolve it professionally. Community colleges and universities should preferably enlist professional services to ensure web compliance for the following reasons.
Adequate Subject Expertise
Accessibility experts possess the specific knowledge and experience required to navigate the intricacies of WCAG guidelines and other accessibility standards.
They thus have the authority and expertise to conduct thorough audits, identify areas of non-compliance, and provide actionable recommendations.
Professional accessibility audits go beyond surface-level assessments. They conduct comprehensive audits that delve deep into the structure and content of websites and applications.
The main aim of the audit is to ensure all aspects meet accessibility standards. In the process, these audits can identify issues that in-house teams might overlook.
Accessibility professionals can also offer the option to customize solutions to an institution’s specific needs. There is no cookie-cutter accessibility solution for all institutions.
Web accessibility experts can help create a customized roadmap for compliance. They will prioritize the areas that require immediate attention and provide a phased approach to accessibility improvements.
Ensure Continuous Monitoring
Web accessibility is not a one-time compliance solution but an ongoing commitment. And continuous monitoring is something other than something for community colleges and institutions.
This is where the professionals can help by offering continuous monitoring and support. They help ensure websites and applications remain accessible as technology evolves and standards change.
The DOJ’s NPRM is undoubtedly a significant step forward in the journey toward a more accessible digital landscape. It underscores the importance of ensuring that individuals with disabilities have equal access to educational resources and government services online.
While the road to compliance may present challenges, it is a path that community colleges must navigate to create a more inclusive future for all students.
As community college administrators, educators, and advocates come together to embrace web accessibility, they are not only adhering to legal mandates but also fostering a more equitable and inclusive educational environment.
By prioritizing accessibility, investing in training, and leveraging technology, community colleges can make the digital world more inclusive for everyone.
This commitment aligns with the ADA’s spirit and embodies the principles of equality and opportunity at higher education’s core.
In the spirit of collaboration and inclusivity, let us embrace these changes and work together to build a digital landscape where every student, regardless of their abilities, has the opportunity to thrive and succeed.
The journey towards web accessibility should not be looked at only as a regulatory requirement. It is more a commitment to creating a more inclusive and equitable future for all.
Considering all this, it is proven that embracing the expertise of accessibility professionals is not only a strategic choice but a moral one.
It signifies a commitment to ensuring that education and government services are truly accessible to everyone, fulfilling the promise of inclusivity and equal opportunity for all.
In a digital age where the web is central to our lives, accessibility is not merely a legal requirement; it’s a fundamental step towards a more equitable and just society.
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The ADA prohibits any private businesses that provide goods or services to the public, referred to as “public accommodations,” from discriminating against those with disabilities. Federal courts have ruled that the ADA includes websites in the definition of public accommodation. As such, websites must offer auxiliary aids and services to low-vision, hearing-impaired, and physically disabled persons, in the same way a business facility must offer wheelchair ramps, braille signage, and sign language interpreters, among other forms of assistance.
All websites must be properly coded for use by electronic screen readers that read aloud to sight-impaired users the visual elements of a webpage. Additionally, all live and pre-recorded audio content must have synchronous captioning for hearing-impaired users.
Websites must accommodate hundreds of keyboard combinations, such as Ctrl + P to print, that people with disabilities depend on to navigate the Internet.
Litigation continues to increase substantially. All business and governmental entities are potential targets for lawsuits and demand letters. Recent actions by the Department of Justice targeting businesses with inaccessible websites will likely create a dramatic increase of litigation risk.
Big box retailer Target Corp. was ordered to pay $6 million – plus $3.7 million more in legal costs – to settle a landmark class action suit brought by the National Federation of the Blind. Other recent defendants in these cases have included McDonald’s, Carnival Cruise Lines, Netflix, Harvard University, Foot Locker, and the National Basketball Association (NBA). Along with these large companies, thousands of small businesses have been subject to ADA website litigation.
Defendants in ADA lawsuits typically pay plaintiff's legal fees, their own legal fees for defending the litigation, and potential additional costs. In all, the average cost can range from tens of thousands of dollars, to above six figures. There are also high intangible costs, such as added stress, time and human capital, as well as reputational damage. Furthermore, if the remediation is incomplete, copycat suits and serial filers can follow, meaning double or triple the outlay. It's vital to implement a long-term strategy for ensuring your website is accessible and legally compliant.