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Digital Inclusion: A Call For Equal Access in Higher Education

Published on
June 28, 2023
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Now that the Joint issuance of the Dear Colleague Letter by the Justice Department and the Department of Education has been released to the general public, it is time to discuss the importance of online accessibility in higher education. We write to make you aware of the Justice Department and Department of Education's ongoing efforts to address barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating in online services, programs, and activities that colleges, universities, and other postsecondary institutions make available to students and the public.

Online accessibility is a matter of basic human rights, and educational institutions play a critical role in upholding these rights. Everyone deserves to have equal access to higher education and the wealth of information that comes with it. Accessibility, far from being a mere convenience, brings a multitude of benefits for all users. It opens up a world of possibilities, especially for those with disabilities, supporting everyone in reaching their full potential.

The institutions offering higher education, including colleges, universities, and other postsecondary entities, bear a significant responsibility in this aspect. They have a duty to ensure that their online resources are accessible to all, regardless of physical or cognitive abilities. Whether it's reading course materials, registering for classes, or participating in virtual classrooms, students with disabilities should be afforded the same ease of access as their peers.

Making online information and resources accessible is not just a moral duty but a functional necessity. It provides innumerable benefits to everyone, especially those who need them the most - individuals living with disabilities. Institutions of higher learning are not just educational bodies; they have a profound responsibility in creating an inclusive, accessible, and equitable digital environment for all students.

Online Services and Platforms in Higher Education

As the proliferation of online services and platforms in higher education continues, accessibility for people with disabilities will become an even more prevalent focus. Websites and third-party platforms are crucial aspects of any form of higher education. If they are not accessible to all, serious changes must be made. Now that the Justice Department and Department of Education are more proactively involved, digital platforms will have no choice but to do so as well.

In addition to websites and third-party platforms becoming more and more pivotal to the educational mission, the use of online platforms to facilitate services, programs, and activities cannot be overlooked. If students with disabilities are not able to conveniently access these platforms, their secondary education experience will be less than satisfactory. Learning platforms, podcasts, and videos on social media and various third-party platforms serve as key examples of multifaceted and enriching online experiences.

Legal Obligations for Accessibility

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

According to Title II, all state/local governments are currently required to provide people with disabilities with a fair and equal opportunity to reap any benefits from each of their services, activities, and programs. Discrimination of any kind from a public entity is strictly prohibited, regardless of whether federal financial assistance is being offered.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

This is a federal civil rights law that strictly prohibits any form of disability-based discrimination. This section of the Rehabilitation Act is directed toward those who are providing any program or activity while continuing to receive federal funding. Equal opportunities across all operations are a must.

These laws ensure continued access to online services, programs, and activities for students with disabilities. What happens if these laws are not followed? Colleges, universities, and other secondary learning institutions place themselves at risk of various penalties.

Reinforcing Accessibility Measures

The importance of web accessibility enforcement activities is something that must be discussed by all secondary learning institutions. It is not merely about compliance with the law, it is a sound educational decision as well. As digital accessibility lawsuits continue to be filed on a more frequent basis, schools must take all of the proper steps to avoid such issues.

Compliance reviews are now ramping up, as the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division is taking a more active role in ensuring this continued accessibility for all. As these reviews become more frequent, the onus is placed on secondary learning institutions to make the right decisions. Fortunately, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is willing to offer the necessary technical assistance to any college or university in need.

This provides educational institutions with the guidance and support that they need to make the proper decisions going forward. They are given all of the tools that they need to equip their students with disabilities with the necessary access to online platforms. After all, these educational institutions must be provided with the opportunity to make a good-faith effort to offer accessibility.

Proactive Steps for Educational Institutions

For educational institutions to remain in lockstep with the laws that have been put into place, they will need to take proactive steps. Let's take a closer look at some of these steps and how they can be implemented at various colleges and universities.

Conducting Accessibility Audits

Without accessibility audits, it is difficult for educational institutions to know if they comply. Since online technology is constantly shifting and evolving, accessibility audits need to be conducted regularly. These audits allow for the identification of potential and current barriers so that they can be removed promptly. The more structured and consistent these audits, the more likely an educational institution is to uncover the necessary information.

Implementing accessible design standards

Once an audit has been completed, the onus is now on the educational institution to implement the proper design standards.

Training content creators and platform administrators

Audits and implementation are great steps that allow educational institutions to operate proactively, but content creators and platform administrators must also be trained. By taking the time to invest in proper training for content creators and platform administrators, colleges and universities can reduce the number of mistakes being made. Well-trained content creators and platform administrators can create the perfect platforms and ensure accessible design standards for all students with disabilities.

Creating an inclusive digital environment

By creating an inclusive digital environment, the online connection does not have to become a topic of contention. The internet and all of the information that it contains is a necessary tool for daily living. In addition to completing work and accessing information, there are several other benefits of an inclusive digital environment.

It allows students with disabilities to remain in close contact with friends and family, maximize their productivity, and support their self-actualization. An inclusive digital environment supports self-empowerment for students with disabilities and a greater ease of receiving basic services. This enhances both personal and societal well-being. 

Digital Inclusion Makes a Connected Society

We have now entered an age where digital inclusiveness is no longer an option for educational institutions. The Justice Department and the Department of Education are no longer tolerating any lack of compliance in this regard. As more and more investigations are opened into educational institutions, the importance of taking proactive steps will become only more evident.

A lack of attention to proactive inclusivity places institutions in a less-than-advantageous position. In addition to ending up on the wrong side of a humanitarian discussion, it is also bad for business. When an educational institution fails to listen, learn, allocate resources and improve, fewer students with disabilities will apply or choose to stay, and the rest of the student body will often decide to stand in solidarity with them. 

That's why proactive audits and training are an absolute must. These are very simple steps that educational institutions must take. It has never been easier for a college or university to take the leap from non-compliance to full compliance. In fact, there are even safeguards put into place for institutions that may be struggling in this regard.

They are now able to receive guidance and support from the aforementioned governing bodies when they are unable to take the proper steps on their own. The policies are not designed to be punitive. Rather, they are there to make the process as hassle-free as possible. Any and all questions and concerns are addressed as quickly as possible at all times.

Once an inclusive environment has been achieved for all students, the next step is to maintain it. By proactively auditing online platforms and delivering the necessary training for all content creators/platform operators, the educational institution keeps themselves (and their entire student body) fully up to date with technological advances. Access should remain safe, equitable, and meaningful.

The concept of digital inclusion goes well beyond basic service access. Structural barriers must be discussed, in addition to the most common risks and threats. The population of people with disabilities is particularly vulnerable, so all crises and conflicts must be resolved as proactively as possible. Without equal online access, existing inequalities are deepened.

With meaningful online information access, inequality of opportunity lessens. Equitable distribution and meaningful access are vital mechanisms behind economic, social and political empowerment. Educational institutions are now taking on a leadership role when it comes to the removal of digital divides.

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