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Policies, Laws, and Other Fine Print

The following material is excerpted from “Recommendations to Promote Online Course/Content Accessibility,” a draft white paper developed in 2014 by Boise State’s eCampus Center in collaboration with a variety of other campus agencies and individuals. It is provided here for informational purposes only. It does not represent official Boise State policy, nor should it be relied upon in lieu of legal advice from the Office of Institutional Compliance and Ethics.

Boise State University Policy 8140: Information Technology Accessibility

The policy statement for Policy 8140 reads as follows:

The University is committed to supporting an information technology (IT) environment that is accessible to all, and in particular to individuals with disabilities. To this end, the University seeks to deploy information technology that is designed, developed, or procured with accessibility in mind. An Accessible IT environment generally enhances usability for everyone, and particularly for people using Assistive Technologies. By supporting IT Accessibility, the University helps ensure that everyone able to access, benefit from, and contribute to its electronic programs and services.

Boise State University Policy 2080: Equal Access for Students with Disabilities

The policy statement for Policy 2080 reads as follows:

Boise State University is committed to creating a diverse and inclusive campus environment by abiding by the letter and spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The University does not discriminate against persons with disabilities and strives to provide an exceptional academic experience for students with disabilities by providing reasonable and appropriate accommodations for equal and easy access.

Legal Requirements

Federal regulations require equally effective access to education opportunities and benefits for students who are otherwise qualified to enroll in a course. Furthermore, accessibility must be built into program and course design; guidance from the Office of Civil Rights states that under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, any implementation of technology should include planning for accessibility. Technology should be accessible from the onset; fully accessible technology should be available immediately upon request (U.S. Department of Education, FAQ, May 26, 2011, p. 4). Finally, accessibility must result in educational opportunities that are as timely, equally effective, and equally integrated as those provided students without disabilities.

The following legislation is the most relevant and applicable to education:

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973), a civil rights law ensuring that institutions receiving federal funds (for example, financial aid for students, funding for research, etc.) provide equal access to all services and programs, with or without accommodations. The United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights enforces compliance with Section 504 with respect to qualifying post-secondary educational institutions.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA (1990/2010), prohibits discrimination based on disability. This legislation reinforces Section 504 and adds guidance concerning policies, practices, standards, and effective communication that limit people with disabilities. As a state-run agency, Boise State University is subject to Title II of the ADA. The United States Department of Justice and the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights enforce ADA compliance in institutions of higher education.

Guidance from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR)

In 2010 the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) sent to all institutions of higher education a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) that addressed the issue of some institutions requiring students to use inaccessible e-book readers. In 2011, the OCR followed up with a significant guidance document in the form of frequently asked questions (FAQs) to clarify the intent and expanded scope of the 2010 letter. Specifically, the scope:

  • encompasses students with all types of disabilities, not just visual disabilities
  • applies to any and all technologies used by the institution; all types of learning must be equally accessible to students with disabilities
  • applies to distance/online education as well as technology used in face-to-face instruction regardless of length (pilot programs, established courses, new courses, emerging technology)
  • applies to all institutional operations, staff, and faculty

As a follow-up, the 2011 DCL provides more specific guidelines on how to apply the message from the 2010 DCL and how to determine if technology is accessible and instructionally necessary. For example, the Office of Civil Rights recommends that schools do the following to put the DCL principles into practice:

  • Schools should include accessibility requirements and analyses as part of their acquisition procedures.
  • Where accessible technology is not available, schools can comply with Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act if they provide students with disabilities “accommodations or modifications that permit them to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.”
  • Schools should provide to students with disabilities educational opportunities and benefits in as timely a manner as those provided to students without disabilities.
  • Students with disabilities should obtain the educational opportunities and benefits with no more difficulty than do students without disabilities.

Recent Complaints and Resolutions

Since 2011, students at Penn State, Louisiana Tech, UC Berkeley, and the University of Montana have lodged formal complaints with those institutions or have sued the institutions over the use of inaccessible technologies. The Office of Civil Rights also recently conducted a compliance review of the South Carolina Technical College System. While some of the complaints and lawsuits have addressed specific classroom technologies, others have addressed broad use of inaccessible technologies—in the library, with ATMs on campus, and on institutional websites. Combining guidance provided by the Office of Civil Rights with the steps outlined in the resolutions and settlements of the complaints and lawsuits provides Boise State with a solid framework for creating a fully accessible educational experience for all students.

For instance, the Penn State resolution defined electronic information technology and the University of Montana resolution reemphasized the phrase as any “information technology and any equipment or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment that is used in the creation, conversion, or duplication of data or information. The term electronic and information technology includes, but is not limited to, telecommunications products (such as telephones), information kiosks, Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) and transaction machines, internet and intranet websites, electronic books and electronic book reading systems, search engines and databases, course management systems, classroom technology and multimedia, personal response systems (‘clickers’), and office equipment such as classroom podiums, copiers and fax machines” (Resolution Agreement Penn State University OCR Complaint No. 03-11-2020).

The University of Montana resolution defines accessible as an environment in which “individuals with disabilities are able to independently acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services within the same time frame as individuals without disabilities, with substantially equivalent ease of use” (Resolution Agreement University of Montana OCR Complaint No. 10-12-2118).

Each of these recent resolutions or settlements shares the following components, which collectively outline some of what institutions must do:

  • Develop policy and procedures for electronic accessibility, including a well-publicized grievance procedure and policies and procedures governing purchasing and procurement.
  • Ensure that institution-wide purchasing policies and procedures are designed to lead to the purchase and procurement of accessible electronic information technology.
  • Develop a well-publicized grievance procedure.
  • Perform an accessibility audit of electronic information technology already in use, conducted by knowledgeable individuals.
  • Develop and provide training for faculty on how to purchase or create accessible courses.
  • Include training on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act a mandatory component of training provided to newly hired employees.
  • Ensure that library databases are accessible and have a system in place to assist students with print disabilities.
  • Have an ambitious plan and reasonable timeline for becoming compliant with existing legislation.