27 Dec 2021 Sarah Roberts
5min read

Spotlight on Accessibility Lawsuits: Why Universities Must Pay Attention

In July 2021, a prospective student filed a complaint against Syracuse University alleging that the school’s website was inaccessible. Arturo Stevez argued that without screen reader capabilities, alternative text and similar accessibility measures, he and other individuals who are Blind face “significant barriers” applying to SU. 

A survey of accessibility complaints against universities this year elucidates that this type of lawsuit is far from unique.  These claims, which commonly relate to guidelines outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, identify weaknesses in online accessibility at many higher education institutions. 

While web accessibility claims are driving a rise in litigation, the laws can be confusing. It’s challenging for university leaders to know what steps they need to take to protect themselves and support their students. Fortunately, institutional leaders who ensure their websites and online materials are accessible will help their students succeed and protect their schools from costly, reputation-damaging legal battles.

Accessibility Cases Often Driven by Repeat Plaintiffs

A quick scan of accessibility claims against colleges this year will show multiple cases with the same plaintiffs. Expanding the search to include lawsuits against corporations shows extreme examples of repeat plaintiffs. For instance, one person filed 55 accessibility lawsuits last November alone. 

In the legal field, many people refer to these cases as “drive-by lawsuits.” The plaintiffs often face criticism for being opportunists who may not even intend to use the services of the named defendants. Frustrated entities on the receiving end of such complaints may feel that the plaintiffs were searching for weaknesses with litigious intent.

However, the plaintiffs often argue that filing accessibility lawsuits is the only avenue for making changes. That perspective holds merit considering how legislators designed accessibility laws in the US. After all, lawsuits often offer the only real remedy. Some recent developments suggest that these claims will continue, and potentially grow in number.

How The 9th Circuit Opens the Door for More Lawsuits 

Two former Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) students filed lawsuits alleging that the school district failed to accommodate their disabilities. Along with the National Federation of the Blind, the students state that the school neglected to provide materials that were compatible with screen readers and did not maintain an accessible website. 

The Circuit Court found in favor of the plaintiffs, and LACCD appealed, claiming that the law does not permit individuals to file lawsuits for unintentional discrimination. At the appellate level, the in 9th Circuit also found for the plaintiffs, arguing that the ADA and Section 504 prohibit intentional and unintentional discrimination. Advocates for disability rights argue that allowing these lawsuits is vital because most forms of discrimination are unintentional, but still severely impact people with disabilities. 

Web Access is a Hot Legal Issue

The case against SU, the one against LACCD and many other recent accessibility lawsuits all touch on online access. Clearly, that trend is not a coincidence. Unfortunately, it creates complications for schools trying to navigate accessibility. The massive spike in online learning and remote communication, guaranteeing access to online content is more critical than ever. As the Stevez case indicates, universities must consider online accessibility measures as they relate to the public, prospective students and enrolled individuals.

These cases can be complex because the ADA doesn’t offer specific guidance for web accessibility. However, Section 504 includes web accessibility requirements. This law applies to federal agencies, and as entities that receive federal funding, universities can face legal exposure for failing to meet these standards. 

Higher education institutions can look at the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to develop accessible websites that meet current expectations. Following this guidance is a good way to protect against litigation and offer students the tools they need to thrive.

Effective Student Support

Online accessibility is still an evolving legal issue, but it’s also one that is vital in today’s increasingly virtual world. University leaders should take note of the lawsuits related to a lack of captions, inadequate captions and limited accessibility for students who are Blind being filed around the country. 

To avoid these issues, university professionals can make ADA guidelines and WCAG standards more top of mind in videos and site pages they publish, within courses and when hosting virtual events. For example, accurate live captioning, captions for recorded content, screen reader capabilities, audio description and additional accessibility-focused solutions help higher-ed institutions craft inclusive communities and avoid legal battles. 

Many of the tools needed to support students on campus and in virtual classrooms are readily available thanks to innovative technology. It’s up to university leaders to proactively acquire and implement solutions that meet the necessary legal benchmarks for accessibility.

Verbit is one partner that can help to ensure a school’s content, courses and events are fully accessible with 99% accurate captions and transcripts that adhere to ADA guidelines.  Contact us for more information about accessibility measures you can take to avoid being the next school hit with an easily preventable lawsuit.