Why the DOJ & DOE Joint ‘Dear Colleagues Letter’ is Monumental for Accessibility in Education 

By: Sarah Roberts

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This summer, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education decided to double down on their commitment to promoting greater accessibility. They co-signed and sent a stern Dear Colleagues letter to universities across the country addressing the need for truly accessible courses and student experiences.

The content in this letter sends a few clear messages, including that online accessibility is a priority for the government. These two departments are aligned, and institutional leaders need to know that regulators won’t be looking the other way when educational institutions don’t meet accessibility standards. The letter also contains the names of institutions and companies that today’s universities often partner with who are missing the mark on providing access. 

Within the Dear Colleagues letter, there is also guidance for university faculty and staff who may have legitimate questions regarding accessibility requirements for their online content, courses and events.

Verbit is already in conversations with our education partners on how to respond to the government’s new emphasis on digital accessibility. Here are some key aspects of the letter that you and leaders at your institution should take note of.  

Exploring online accessibility challenges 

The DOJ and DOE addressed the growth in online content and virtual courses, as well as the failure of some widely-used platforms to address them. Kadenze, edX, YouTube, Spotify and Apple Podcasts were called out for not always offering appropriate levels of accessibility to the institutions using them. 

This section of the letter also covers some of the solutions for breaking down accessibility barriers, including making content screen reader-friendly. Screen readers are a tool that reads text aloud to learners who are blind or have low vision. Additional tools like accurate captions and transcripts are also necessary to assist students with disabilities and others who rely on them for equity.  

The DOJ and DOE point out that access isn’t just about courses and educational content. University leaders must consider other events on campuses and online as well. Graduation ceremonies, sporting events and admissions content must also be accessible to students. Universities also need to consider accommodations for audience members participating who may have disabilities.  

The legal frameworks discussed 

The DOJ and DOE stressed accessibility-focused laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. These laws apply to most universities. The letter provides more guidance on how these laws pertain to access both online and on today’s campuses.  

Clarifying the Americans with Disabilities Act’s online requirements  

The ADA applies to both public and private institutions. This law requires that universities give “qualified individuals with disabilities the opportunity to participate.” The letter calls out online programming and services specifically to remove any doubt that the ADA applies to digital spaces just as it does to physical ones.  

The letter also states that educational institutions are obligated to offer auxiliary aids to ensure they’re effectively serving and communicating with people with disabilities. Some of the auxiliary aids the letter lists include: 

  • Closed captioning 
  • Qualified interpreters 
  • Accessible electronic and information technology 

The DOJ and DOE make it clear that the list is not exhaustive. It’s up to a university to find a creative solution or the right tools to avoid excluding anyone. Sometimes, this might mean changing policies, procedures or practices. Creative approaches and evaluations of processes could help determine whether they’re creating any barriers. To accomplish this, it’s often necessary to include the people who rely on accessibility solutions or modifications in the discussion. 

The additional requirements of Section 504 of the Rehab Act 

Section 504 is a little different from the ADA because it applies to any school that receives federal funding. Still, this covers the vast majority of public and private postsecondary educational institutions. The letter makes it clear that the government’s position is that if Section 504 covers an institution, it covers both online and physical spaces. 

One final but critical point the DOJ and DOE make is that accessibility requirements aren’t just for students, faculty and staff. These standards apply to anything the universities offer to the general public. Videos online that lack accessibility features like captions are in violation, even if they are promoting a public event, recruiting new students or otherwise aimed at a population outside of the student body and campus community.

Potential consequences of inaccessibility (and how to avoid them) 

The letter discusses the outcome of a recent enforcement action with a well-known university in California. The institution has since made its website and online platforms, such as its virtual courses, accessible.  
 
The requirements noted extend to content third-party platforms institutions are often using as well, such as Apple Podcasts and YouTube. Rather than wait to be ‘called out’ in a public letter, educational institutions would be wise take proactive steps to become more accessible.  
 
Some areas to start focusing on for accessibility include: 

  • Revise accessibility policies 
  • Train personnel on accessibility matters 
  • Formally designate a web accessibility coordinator 
  • Test online content for accessibility 
  • Hire an independent accessibility auditor to perform an evaluation of its content 

The letter makes it clear that accessibility barriers exist at many universities and institutions around the US, and that the DOJ is committed to resolving these issues. In this way, the letter puts universities on notice.  
 
Regulators are viewing online accessibility as a priority. They’re paying attention, and they’re no longer afraid to call out educational institutions that aren’t offering proper access. If access online is important for regulators, it needs to become increasingly important for universities today as well. 

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Finding the right support to provide effective access 

Online accessibility can be complicated if you don’t know where to start. The letter directs universities to recent online publications for guidance. Reading “Guidance on Web Accessibility and the ADA” and watching the OCR’s video series can be helpful.  

Taking steps to prioritize online accessibility often requires more education among staff and faculty. It will require that universities take time to learn more about how to update their online presences as more students and their communities engage online and on social. However, there are many resources available to help ease this process. 

The worst approach would be to procrastinate or put off accessibility initiatives until someone complains or regulators begin to investigate. Verbit is already working with educational institutions across the globe and understands a lot of the challenges and gaps at play when it comes to access. Our expert education team can help to provide guidance on updating and improving the accessibility of your institution’s online courses, content and campus events.  
 
Reach out today to learn how Verbit can help you respond proactively to the topics addressed in the joint letter and address your institution’s accessibility needs.