Texas Tech University

On Accessibility

A Sudden Emphasis on Online Accessibility?

by Jackie L. Luft, Ed.D.

Where did all these online accessibility issues come from? Doesn't it seem like there is suddenly a lot of discussion about online accessibility? Part of the recent interest in accessibility is due to an increase in lawsuits, but the regulation of online accessibility started decades ago. Why did it take so long for higher education to get on board?

Accessibility started in 1973 with the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 of this act states that those who receive federal funds can not discriminate against a person with a disability, including colleges and universities. The first lawsuit against a college was in 1979 where a student with an auditory impairment was denied admission to a nursing program because the college claimed the disability would prevent her from participating in clinicals. The courts ruled in the college's favor! This lawsuit propelled advocates for disabilities to fight for civil rights.

The 1980s saw an increase of these advocates and in 1990 the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) was passed. Contractors and architects across the country started creating ramps in curbs, sliding glass doors, and elevators in public buildings. Title II of the ADA included the regulation that communication from federal, state and local public agencies must be accessible to the blind, deaf or hard of hearing. The internet was just beginning in the 1990s but regulations regarding accessibility of websites were included in the ADA.

One of the earliest complaints that fell under Section 508 of the ADA was the National Federation of the Blind against the U.S. Department of Education. In this case, a person with a visual disability was unable to access content in a website under the U.S. DOE website. Since that time, there have been multiple lawsuits against universities under both the Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disability Act.

Some of the major universities that have had a complaint filed against them and their rulings are listed below. 

The above mentioned websites are just a few of the lawsuits and complaints that are impacting higher education. We have a requirement to comply with federal regulation, but it should just be second nature to create accessible content. Many times this just means learning a few new techniques. Accessibility for individuals with disabilities is an ongoing process. We have come so far since its early days. Imagine how far we will go.