Higher Education Accessibility Online Resource Center

Nationwide, colleges and universities embrace the idea of a diverse student body, inclusive of students with disabilities. But creating a campus that is physically and technologically accessible to students with disabilities takes leadership, planning, and commitment. Understanding internationally accepted accessibility guidelines and federal requirements and knowing who has pioneered a truly accessible campus are key in this endeavor. The National Federation of the Blind’s Center of Excellence in Nonvisual Access to Education, Public Information, and Commerce (CENA) has created this online resource center to help colleges be accessible, so that your student body can be the diverse gathering of students you seek, and so that blind college students can achieve their true potential and not be limited by accessibility barriers.

This online resource includes examples of digital accessibility policies, legal requirements, and links to accessibility standards and procurement policies. 

Contents

  1. Accessible Technology Overview
    1. Accessibility from the Beginning
    2. Standards and Guidelines
    3. Document Accessibility
  2. Legal Rights and Requirements
    1. Legal Rights of Disabled Students
    2. Federal Guidance on Equal Access to Technology
    3. Legal Action
    4. AIM-HE Legislation
  3. Planning for Digital Accessibility: a Guide to Policy and Procurement
  4. Contact the National Federation of the Blind
  5. Student Testimonies

Accessible Technology Overview

Digital accessibility refers to the practice of designing electronic material so that it is usable by all people, including people with disabilities. It allows for information to be available visually, aurally, and tactilely. Most of the time, the term digital accessibility reflects the needs of those who use specially designed technology to complete tasks on a computer or mobile device. These devices and software are called access technology, and they provide for equality in education, employment, and other major life activities.

Students who are blind or have other print disabilities often use screen-reading software to verbalize or put into Braille what the sighted computer user sees. However, in order for screen-reading software to convert text into speech or Braille, the website, learning management system, or document must be created in accordance with standards and procedures that enable the software to function. If websites, learning management systems, and instructional materials are not created in accordance with accessibility standards, students who rely on the use of screen-readers will not be able to access or utilize the information they contain. 

Accessibility from the Beginning

When websites, documents, learning management systems, and other applications are built accessibly from the beginning, and university procedures and procurement policies include digital accessibility requirements, students with a variety of backgrounds and abilities will have full and integrated access to all aspects of campus life. Building accessible platforms and documents from the beginning will erase the need for and cost of retroactively recreating parts of your digital content.

Standards and Guidelines

The World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA are widely accepted as providing for full and equal access in accordance with federal law. W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative offers further resources including educational materials on web accessibility and working groups to improve the online experience for people with disabilities. 

Document Accessibility

It is possible for all types of documents, from PowerPoints to PDF’s, to be accessible to users of access technology.

Legal Rights and Requirements

Legal Rights of Disabled Students

Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, colleges and universities are obligated to provide students with disabilities equal and integrated access to higher education. Schools cannot deny students with disabilities equally effective opportunity to participate in the programs, benefits, and services they offer. This means that classrooms, cafeterias, libraries, residence halls, computer labs, and all other campus spaces, including online courses, must be accessible.

In Authors Guild v. Hathi Trust, the Second Circuit ruled that the doctrine of fair use under the Copyright Act permits anyone to make an accessible digital copy of a copyrighted print book for a person with a print disability without the permission of the copyright owner. This ruling removes the need for schools to secure from copyright owners permission prior to reproduction and redistribution, and opens up to blind students the vast quantities of information that many college libraries contain.

Federal Guidance on Equal Access to Technology in Higher Education

In 2010 and 2011, the United States Departments of Justice and Education jointly issued guidance that educational technology must be accessible to students with disabilities, and that pilot programs designed for only a small margin of the student body must likewise be accessible.

Legal Action

When self-advocacy and dispute resolution on campus fail to provide accommodations and equal access, blind students may be faced with no other option but to file a complaint with the United States Departments of Education or Justice, or to file a complaint in federal court. This is not an easy path for students, but it is an important one.

Key legal actions have helped to shape the definition of equal access on campus. The following complaints, agreements, and consent decrees, some with involvement of the United States Department of Education, document in very specific terms what equal access means for blind students and how it should be implemented on campus.

AIM-HE Legislation

Though section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act protect the rights of students with disabilities to receive equal access to education, they do not provide clear guidelines for assuring these students access to the technology that has become central to the 21st-century learning experience.  The AIM-HE (Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education) Act would create voluntary guidelines that would direct colleges and universities in the creation and procurement of accessible technology. Institutions of higher education that follow these guidelines would find themselves in a safe harbor, free from litigation due to inaccessibility of technology.  Read more about AIM-HE, and learn how you can support this critical draft legislation at https://nfb.org/aim_he.   

Planning for Digital Accessibility: a Guide to Policy and Procurement

Meeting legal obligations and providing equal access on campus is not easy. It requires time and commitment at all levels; ultimately it requires a change in culture. Adopting policies and procedures that consider accessibility can create blueprints for a truly accessible campus. Having procurement plans in place that allow only for purchasing technology that meets WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines is an easy step towards preventing disability discrimination. Many colleges and universities have already succeeded in these efforts and their policies and procedures are available for review. The following examples can help any school move towards a culture of accessibility. 

Sample Policies and Guidance

Third Party Consultants

Third party consultants can assist a college or university through the process of making their digital campus accessible. For a list of web accessibility consultants, see:https://nfb.org/web-accessibility-consultants.

Contact the NFB

The National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness does not define blind students or their futures. We work to raise expectations and to remove obstacles between blind students are their dreams. The NFB’s Center of Excellence in Nonvisual Access to Education, Public Information, and Commerce, serves to share the considerable knowledge that the NFB and its partners have of web accessibility and access technology in order to bring about greater accessibility in government, education, business, and to promote best practices nationally.

Contact us for more information:

National Federation of the Blind
Center of Excellence in Nonvisual Access to Education,
Public Information, and Commerce
200 East Wells Street
        at Jernigan Place
Baltimore, Maryland 21230
410- 695-9314, extension 5
emai: access@nfb.org

Student Testimonies

As a reminder of why accessibility on campus is necessary, the following students’ stories attest to how access barriers can greatly impact, if not derail, college experiences and ultimately career successes. These are just a sample of the students who are affected by inaccessibility on campus.

  • “A few semesters ago, I took a statistics class which had a significant online component. All homework was completed online, and there were myriad study tools which could be accessed electronically. I knew the class was going to be a challenge for me, math is not my strongest subject, but was looking forward to utilizing the online resources. Much to my disappointment, they were completely inaccessible to me. I was able to complete the assignments with the help of a sighted reader, but could not access the study material at my leisure as my sighted peers could. I don’t mind struggling through an inherently challenging class, but when that struggle is compounded by inaccessible material, it is discouraging indeed.

    Conversely, when instructional materials are accessible, it opens up a world of opportunity to blind students. I am currently enrolled in a Master’s program through Colorado State University’s online campus. All required instructional material is accessible to me, and I am able to study at my leisure, hold down a job in my home town and be there for my son whenever he needs me.”
    -Angela, California

  • “My most recent encounter with inaccessible educational technology occurred when I took an introductory microeconomics course last semester. The weekly problem sets for the class were to be completed on a website called Aplia, and I discovered that assignments on this site cannot be read at all using screen reading software. I was therefore unable to complete these assignments independently, and had to rely on a human reader to recite the questions and enter my responses. Although I was able to complete the homework with the help of this assistant, I believe that not being able to do so on my own had a negative impact on my learning experience and potential. I often felt rushed while answering questions with a reader present, not wanting to take too much of their time. I also could not simply go back to the problem sets and study them at any time for an exam, as my fellow students were able to do...

    It is critical for students with print disabilities to have the same opportunities to succeed academically and achieve their goals as non-disabled students. Currently, inaccessible educational technology is so pervasive that this kind of equality is not entirely possible, as so many academic resources are not available to us.”
    -Kyra, California

  • “I have had routine difficulties independently completing such necessary tasks as registering for classes, accessing online readings, filling out course evaluations, viewing my grades, communicating with various campus offices, reachable only through inaccessible online forms, etc., etc. (the list could go on for pages). I was once, as an undergraduate, initially informed I would not be eligible for a position as a tutor at my school's writing center solely, I was told, because the web interface the center used had not been made accessible.”
    -Lucy, California

  • “I have found many of my electronic readings to be poorly tagged in .pdf files that a text to speech screen-reading program cannot decipher. Instead of having access equal to that of my peers to course readings, the disability student services office has to convert the documents into text files and I have to wait to have access to the materials. This system is inefficient and it leaves me at a disadvantage to my classmates. This is one of many examples of access barriers I have encountered due to inaccessible technology. And stories like mine are all too common among blind college and graduate students. Why are blind students not receiving equal access to all aspects of education? It isn’t because accessibility is difficult or expensive to achieve. And it isn’t because universities are maliciously discriminating against blind students. It is simply because schools, for the most part, don’t really understand what accessibility looks like. And, therefore, the schools do not know what accessibility features to demand from those who create the technologies they purchase and use.”
    -Sean, Massachusetts

  • “Throughout my time in college, technology has begun to play a more significant role in higher education. Now, some of the classes I am required to take for my major are mixed medium classes, meaning we meet once a week in a physical classroom and do the rest of the work online. This usually involves listening to lectures, or watching videos recorded by our teachers. Unfortunately, the video/audio player adopted by my university is inaccessible to me as a blind student. When I click on the link to access my lecture, I am taken to a page that my screen reader describes as blank. I cannot access the buttons to play the media file, let alone jump around in it to access different parts of the material. This means that I am at a severe disadvantage in comparison to my sighted classmates.”
    -Karen, Nebraska

  • “I didn’t even take my math placement exam because it was not accessible, so I was forced to start with college algebra rather than potentially calculus. Therefore, majors with more than that as a requirement for me went right out of the window because I could not conceive success without braille or accessible web tools that described the content.”
    -Cindy, Washington

  • “The problem is not the fact that I am blind.The problem is the fact that inaccessible technology is woven into the fabric of the collegiate academic experience at many institutions.Nobody wants the technology to be inaccessible, but no one has guidelines on how to ensure that I can be welcome in higher education. Well-meaning institutions can and do go awry without these guidelines.”
    -Justin, Louisiana

  • “When you think of your college days, a variety of thoughts probably come to mind: dining hall food, late night studying, having fun with your friends, cramming for tests, and participating in activities that you found interesting.Many blind students have these memories as well, but they are tarnished with the memories of figuring out how to navigate a website that is not compatible with a screen reader, the anxiety of falling behind in class because reading materials are inaccessible, and the embarrassment of asking a friend or classmate for assistance navigating these issues.Think of how your recollection would change if you had to tackle these challenges on top of the daily stresses that every college student faces (such as how to pay for school, develop study techniques, maintain good relationships with friends etc.).I'm not saying that college is unbearable for blind students, but I am saying that we are currently at a disadvantage in the classroom."
    -Lizzy, Pennsylvania