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How Can Educators Protect Their Institutions Against a New Wave of Digital Accessibility Lawsuits?

Posted August 25, 2020


Posted August 25, 2020

Illustration of student with desks and whiteboard
Illustration of student with desks and whiteboard

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The education industry is facing another challenge as the school year begins: a skyrocketing number of digital accessibility lawsuits. In July and the first week of August, we have tracked 35 federal lawsuits targeting the education industry filed in U.S. Federal District Court. To put that in perspective, there were just two federal lawsuits the entire first half of 2020. That’s a 1,750% increase, with new cases filed almost every day. If your institution doesn’t have a strong position on digital accessibility, there could be trouble ahead.

Why online learning raises accessibility risks

Even before COVID-19, teachers and students were under pressure to adopt new technologies and adapt to new ways of teaching and learning. The pandemic has massively accelerated this trend: with classrooms closed around the world, a robust online education platform is no longer a differentiator or a nice-to-have — it’s a fundamental necessity for your institution’s survival.

It’s also a necessity to ensure the content provided on these online platforms is accessible for students with disabilities, such as those who rely on screen readers or other assistive technology. If your online content isn’t created with accessibility in mind, these individuals will be severely disadvantaged.

And since nearly 7 million students in the U.S. — 14 percent of the entire national public school enrollment[1] — are living with a disability, that’s a huge proportion of the population whose rights are potentially being infringed.

And in case those numbers make the problem seem too large to comprehend, just take a look at a few personal accounts of how accessibility issues cause real problems for individual students—like this moving story of Micah Lafonte’s struggles with his school’s learning management system.

Fortunately, the law is on the side of students like Micah: this type of discrimination is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as contravening a host of other federal and state laws. For example, all public schools in the U.S. are bound by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as are private schools that have received funding under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act or other federal schemes[2].

In addition to private lawsuits, any complaints against schools for contravening Section 504 could also trigger an investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) — putting any future federal funding at risk if the issues are not resolved.

Protecting your institution

The huge increase in lawsuits over the past few weeks demonstrates that there’s a clear legal risk for institutions whose websites and online learning platforms fall foul of accessibility legislation.

So, how can your institution protect itself against the significant legal costs and reputational damage of an accessibility lawsuit? And more importantly, how can you ensure that all your students enjoy the same engaging, accessible learning experience, regardless of whether or not they are living with a disability?

Leading by example

Misericordia University in Dallas, Pasadena, turned to AudioEye to help it boost the accessibility of its websites and mitigate the risk of litigation. AudioEye provides its fully managed service, which monitors, manages and remediates any errors in the university’s digital content, using a combination of automated tools and human-in-the-loop feedback from AudioEye’s accessibility experts.

The solution integrates seamlessly with the university’s existing Finalsite content management system (CMS), enabling faculty to add and edit content freely while relying on the safety-net of the AudioEye service to catch and fix accessibility issues. As a result, the university is able to maintain an accessibility rating of above 95 percent at any given time — more than 20 points higher than the education industry standard.

As Dave Johndrow, Manager, PC Services, Misericordia University, puts it: “Just having the AudioEye accessibility icon on every page on our site is like having the big dog on the porch. We’re demonstrating to every visitor not only our compliance, but our commitment to true inclusivity.”

If you’d like to learn more about how Misericordia benefits from AudioEye’s managed service, you can read their full story or watch their video testimonial. Or to take a deeper dive into AudioEye’s accessibility solutions and services, reach out to our team of digital accessibility experts.

[1] National Center for Education Statistics data:

[1] Educational institutions are required by law to make their digital content accessible to people with disabilities. Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibit disability discrimination. If your educational institution receives federal funds, it also falls under the requirements of Section 504. If your digital content does not meet with ADA compliance standards, you could become the target of an investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

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