Civil rights laws exist that protect the rights of people with disabilities. When these laws are followed, people with disabilities have more access to opportunities that allow them to live closer to their potential. When they are not, the University may suffer legal consequences.
Legally Recognized Human Right
Creating accessible digital materials—ranging from an accessible Word doc or syllabus to an organizational website to choosing an enterprise level software tool—is a basic human right recognized in the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The UN specifically calls upon countries to “promote access to information by providing information intended for the general public in accessible formats and technologies” and “encouraging the media and Internet providers to make online information available in accessible formats (Article 21).”
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Title II of the ADA requires that State and local governments (including the U of M) give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services, and activities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 1990. Section 504 of this law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs and activities receiving financial assistance from the federal government by:
- Employers (Title I)
- State and Local Governments (Title II)
- Places of Public Accommodation (Title III)
Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
Section 504 states that "no qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under" any program or activity that either receives Federal financial assistance or is conducted by any Executive agency or the United States Postal Service.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandated that "all electronic and information technology used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities." Although the original intent of Section 508 was to provide accessibility in the federal sector, it has been widely accepted that colleges and universities are subject to its requirements under Title II because they almost universally receive some form of federal funding.
Section 504 includes provisions for individuals with disabilities to participate in programs and services with the use of auxiliary aids, where necessary. These aids are commonly referred to as accommodations. On the other hand, Section 508 requires that persons with disabilities have comparable access to and use of ICT — a subtle but meaningful distinction.
An accommodation is…
- provided based on the specific needs of a student with a documented disability
- determined by an accommodations officer on a case-by-case basis
- provided for students whose needs require great intervention, such as live American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters or lecture transcripts for live courses
- for circumstances that are difficult to anticipate and prepare for
- the responsibility of all who create or publish digital content
- provided for all students, with no expectation of an explanation of need
- expected for disabilities that are easily anticipated
It's important to note that higher education institutions across the country have had complaints filed against them for the inaccessibility of their digital resources.
Many of these complaints have resulted in settlement agreements between the institutions and either the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights or the U.S. Department of Justice, both of which share enforcement responsibilities for the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The University of Minnesota Duluth maintains a fairly comprehensive list of those settlement agreements.