On May 19, 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights issued a joint Dear Colleague letter (“Letter”) reminding postsecondary institutions of their obligations to ensure that the online services, programs, and activities provided by such institutions are accessible to individuals with disabilities.
The Departments’ focus in in this Letter pointedly refers to two federal laws (the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act)that require postsecondary institutions (and K-12 entities) to provide equal opportunities to people with disabilities in all of their operations, including equal opportunities to participate in and benefit from online services, programs and activities. Both laws require postsecondary (and K-12) institutions ensure the accessibility of public-facing websites, learning management systems, password-protected student-facing content, mass email blasts, online programming, etc. The key, according to the Letter, is to remove digital barriers and provide access to online services, programming, and content, etc.
Digital accessibility-and enforcement- is an ongoing focus for the Departments in addressing issues related to institutions failing to achieve those goals. It highlights a consent decree in which a postsecondary institution in California was required to make all public online content on its website and other online platforms accessible to people with disabilities, including videos and podcasts on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, and third-party platforms. The consent decree required the institution to designate a “web accessibility coordinator”, accessibility testing of online content, and independent auditing to evaluate whether content provided to students and the public was accessible.
In May 2022, the Office for Civil Rights engaged in over 100 compliance reviews concerning digital accessibility, which included education from K-12 through postsecondary education. During the same time period, the Justice Department also issued guidance involving web access for individuals with disabilities, showing how districts can make sure their websites and services are accessible to people with disabilities as required by the ADA. This guidance may be accessed here.
While this Letter does not address K-12 educational institutions, it does serve as a useful reminder to both K-12 and also those institutions providing both levels of education that educational technology accessibility has been and will continue to be a focus for the Departments in ensuring equal access. Districts should also be watching for the Department of Education’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for amendments to Section 504 regulations that was mentioned in this Letter.
What does this mean for your District?
The Departments are laser focused on this topic. As bluntly stated in this guidance: “[o]nline accessibility for people with disabilities cannot be an afterthought.” Districts should conduct a review of the accessibility of online programming, services, activities, etc. provided to ensure that these essential services are accessible to students with disabilities. Internal audits of online programs and services to ensure educational technology is accessible: if barriers are discovered, steps can be taken and documented to ensure these programs are accessible going forward.