The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is investigating hundreds of colleges and universities that it says have not met web accessibility standards for people with disabilities, Inside Higher Ed reported. An official told the publication there were 556 open cases as of August 2017.
Numerous high-profile lawsuits in higher education over accessibility issues have brought the issue to the forefront of colleges' attention, but monitoring thousands of web pages — with many created or revised daily — can be a giant undertaking.
There are tools available that automatically check websites for accessibility, but some experts estimate they are accurate less than half the time. Common pitfalls include the software checking to see if an accessibility feature such as an alt-tag is present but not checking the quality of that description in order to ensure it is helpful.
Legal battles for accessibility that have long been waged over physical spaces are now increasingly turning online. This increased scrutiny has prodded many colleges to focus on how they can improve their web presence for those with disabilities.
Several universities have faced related lawsuits in recent years. Harvard and MIT, for example, were both sued in 2015 by advocates for the deaf for not providing closed captions on their online lectures and other educational materials. And in 2017, complaints were filed against several New York colleges and universities, including Long Island University and Fordham University, that alleged their websites were inaccessible to people who are blind.
Colleges can take steps to improve the accessibility of their sites by pooling knowledge from different stakeholders across the campus, according to a 2016 report by 3PlayMedia. That includes taking proactive, not reactive, measures to increase accessibility online, starting with core curricula and the most-used resources.
More specifically, the report notes, those steps can include alt-tags to images so people with visual impairments can read web content using a screen reader; adding captions, subtitles and alternate text to videos to support those with a hearing impairments; reviewing color combinations that make it difficult to read text; and making content accessible by keyboard for those lacking fine motor skills.
The Northeast ADA Center, located at the Yang-Tan Institute at Cornell University, recommends several best practices to help colleges and universities stay in compliance with web accessibility standards. Among them is establishing a primary point of contact on campus for issues pertaining to web accessibility, developing a policy that incorporates local laws, reviewing all web content and creating consistent standards for accessibility.