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Accessibility

Understanding Accessibility

The Americans with Disabilities Act

In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) the information within all materials provided to students or to the public, whether in person or through electronic means, must be fully accessible to all persons regardless of their disabilities or impairments.

Every reasonable effort must be made to ensure that all files, documents, videos, books, audio recordings, and applications provided to students or the public are fully accessible.

What Does Accessible Mean?

Put simply, an item is accessible when it can be easily understood by everyone.

Accessibility can also be summed up by the question: Can the information within a document be accessed by everyone who interacts with it?

If the information contained within a document cannot be recieved or understood by someone through no fault of their own, then that document is not accessible, and could even be considered to be discriminatory.

If a material is required for a student to pass a course, then it must be accessible to all students.

If a material or new technology cannot be made equally accessible to all students, then it cannot be made a requirement of a course.

Office for Civil Rights: Online Education and Website Accessibility

Hello, I’m Kenneth Marcus, Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights. The Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, is tasked with ensuring equal access to education and promoting educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights.

Today more than ever before, access to education has moved online. And, in light of the coronavirus, a number of educational institutions have indicated that they are moving their services online. These online platforms are some of the most prominent ways schools and institutions, including public libraries, communicate and provide educational services. Students and parents now frequently visit school websites, online student portals, and mobile applications.

Even institutions that are new to online learning use the Internet to disseminate information and deliver a wide variety of services such as: online applications; lunch payment systems for elementary school districts; and remote course work for students at all stages of their educational careers, just to name a few examples.

Online learning is a powerful tool for educational institutions as long as it is accessible for everyone. Services, programs, and activities online must be accessible to persons, including individuals with disabilities, unless equally effective alternate access is provided in another manner.

Last year, OCR initiated a national effort to address online accessibility for individuals with disabilities. In this video, my colleagues and I will cover the basic legal framework, what accessibility means in the context of a school’s online programs, and the work that OCR is doing to help our nation’s schools achieve that goal. We will also discuss the resources we have available for educators that are new to online learning and website accessibility.

Key to our discussion today, OCR is responsible for enforcing two federal civil rights laws that address the rights of individuals with disabilities.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, applies to entities that receive federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education, including school districts and public and private colleges and universities.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to public entities; and OCR shares responsibility with the U.S. Department of Justice in enforcing Title II with respect to most public educational institutions, as well as public libraries.

Under both laws, recipients of federal financial assistance and public entities must ensure that individuals with disabilities have an equal opportunity, as compared to individuals without disabilities, to participate in their services, programs, and activities.

When we use the term “accessible,” we mean that individuals with disabilities can acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same programs and activities as their nondisabled peers, with substantially equivalent ease of use.

When considering the accessibility of online technology, keep in mind that many individuals are blind, have low vision, have mobility disabilities affecting hand control and coordination, are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and have other disabilities, such as seizure disorders or cognitive disabilities.

Individuals with disabilities may use assistive technology to enable them to navigate websites and access related information, such as PDF documents contained on websites. Some examples of assistive technology include: speech recognition software, mouth sticks, or eye tracking or pointing devices to navigate Websites, for individuals with mobility disabilities, who find it difficult or impossible to use their hands to operate a mouse. and screen reader software that converts visual information on websites into speech, for individuals who are blind.

It is important that websites and online learning are built and developed to be accessible to individuals with a variety of disabilities, and compatible with the various forms of assistive technology such individuals might use.

One way for educational institutions to take stock of their online accessibility is to engage in routine testing of their online activities. This testing can include an automated checker, which assesses the coding of the website. However, automated checkers should be supplemented by manual testing conducted by an individual who can identify accessibility deficiencies that go undetected by automated checkers. For example, an automated checker would often not be able to confirm whether a user, who because of disability cannot use a mouse, can access a website using only the keyboard.

In June 2019, OCR launched a national website accessibility team to investigate the accessibility of online services, programs, and activities of educational institutions and public libraries and to provide technical assistance in this area. The team includes dedicated attorneys and investigative staff members from all of OCR’s 12 regional offices who have received specific training about website accessibility. The team conducts directed investigations, processes complaints received from the public, and provides technical assistance.

We understand that many educators are new to online learning and that the field is evolving due to coronavirus concerns. Educators who have questions may contact our web access team for technical assistance. OCR is also committed to providing the public with information about the civil rights laws OCR enforces. Our Web Access Team can be reached via email at OCRWebAccessTA@ed.gov

Anyone who feels that a recipient or educational institution has violated a federal civil rights law enforced by OCR can file a complaint at ocrcas.ed.gov.

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