Colleges and Universities Face Online Accessibility Challenges for ADA Compliance

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Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance is something colleges and universities have been dealing with for a long time when it comes to physical accommodations. Increasingly, however, online accessibility is a concern that all institutions have to carefully consider. Generally, the number of ADA lawsuits have been rising steadily from 2014 to present with over 11,000 filed in 2019. The cases largely focus on public accessibility of online services ranging from admissions to content provided in eBooks. 

As the sheer number of these lawsuits suggest, even though these are often filed as class action lawsuits, the typical case does not involve protracted litigation. Instead, the typical resolution is the institution pays some relatively modest amount of money to the plaintiff and agrees to implement an industry standard such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. Although WCAG is not a legal standard, it is used as a benchmark and explicitly referenced in agreements. Further, the recently finalized California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) implementing regulations specifically refer to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, version 2.1 of June 5, 2018, as an exemplary “recognized industry standard[]” for making an online notice reasonably accessible to consumers with disabilities (see Final CCPA Regulations, Section 999.305(2)(d)).

WCAG contains a set of specific features that can be implemented for accessibility. Because it is prescriptive it is also relatively easy to test for compliance. Free downloadable or online utilities allow a plaintiff’s firm to audit any website to create a list of deficiencies that can be cited in a complaint. Given the inclusion of this standard in the CCPA and its reference in typical settlements, WCAG represents a baseline that organizations should seek to meet as it relates to accessibility.

Colleges and universities have a particularly significant challenge when it comes to online accessibility. They are constantly rolling out new services, and in the current climate, online activities are at an all-time high. These institutions should consider auditing their own sites for WCAG compliance and also setting up a formal set of policies and procedures to ensure that accessibility guidelines are followed as new online services are rolled out. In addition to providing information to report complaints, colleges and universities should carefully monitor any complaints to ensure that issues are addressed expediently and further remediation, if appropriate, occurs.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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