FAQ: Legal Obligations to Students

Frequently Asked Questions: Legal Obligations to Students*

Are there any laws requiring ISU websites to be accessible?

Yes. As public university, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) require ISU to provide qualified existing and prospective students with disabilities equal access to their programs, services, and activities unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of their programs, services, or activities or would impose an undue burden. As part of that obligation, a public university like ISU is required to provide equally effective communication to persons with disabilities, regardless of whether the university generally communicates through print media, audio media, or computerized media such as the internet (e.g., ISU websites, email, web-based educational programs like Blackboard). Universities using internet-based means for communication regarding their programs, goods, and services must make that information accessible.

Additionally, the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRC), Iowa’s primary civil rights law, also contains provisions prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, including in the context of education. Some of the ICRC’s requirements could be applied to web accessibility as a component of an educational program for students.

Isn’t ISU subject to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973? Isn’t Section 508 the relevant standard a court would use to measure website accessibility?

No, not any more. Section 508 is no longer the relevant standard for a public university. The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights are now holding public and private entities to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, Level AA standard. 

Rather than requiring all University websites be accessible, why not make web accessibility accommodations on a case-by-case basis?

The United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is responsible for enforcing Section 504 with respect to complaints filed against public institutions of higher education. The OCR has stated that a public entity violates its obligations under the ADA when it simply responds to individual requests for disability accommodation on a case-by-case basis. This is not considered an “equally effective” alternative given the advantage of real-time access to internet-based information. 

A public university like ISU has an affirmative duty to establish a comprehensive web accessibility policy to comply with the legal requirements of the ADA and Section 504, as well as the expectations of the OCR. Ideally, such a policy would proactively address common student requests for auxiliary aids or services.

On a practical level, accessibility experts have determined that it generally takes less time and is less costly to include accessibility as a design parameter from the start, rather than attempting to "retrofit" web sites after a complaint has been filed. Consequently, a comprehensive policy should establish accessibility as a prerequisite for material to be posted online.

Can’t a university meet its legal obligations by simply providing an alternative accessible way for individuals with disabilities to access its programs or services rather than mandating website accessibility across the institution?

No. Title II of the ADA and Section 504 require that public universities take appropriate steps to assure communications with students with disabilities are “as effective” as communications with others. Thus, the issue is the extent to which the communication is actually "as effective" as that provided to others. OCR has repeatedly held that the term “communication” in this context means the transfer of information, including but not limited to, the verbal presentation of a lecture, the printed text of a book, and the resources of the Internet.

In assessing whether communication is effective, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has identified three basic components: timeliness of delivery, accuracy of the translation, and the abilities of the individual with the disability. With respect to the timeliness component, OCR has noted that a computer user with a disability may want to access the web during approximately the same number of hours with the same spontaneous flexibility that is enjoyed by non-disabled users. While an institution with an inaccessible website might attempt to meet its legal obligations by offering an alternative method of accessing the institution’s programs or services (such as a staffed telephone line), such an opportunity may not be considered “as effective” by regulatory agencies as a web-based service because it is not available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Have there been any legal challenges involving website accessibility at other colleges or universities?

Yes, many in fact. There have been numerous successful legal challenges (lawsuits and administrative complaints) involving website and other technology related accessibility at colleges or universities over the past few years.  For example, Penn State University settled a significant claim by the National Federation for the Blind and the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights.  The settlement agreement required Penn State to conduct a full accessibility audit of its complete technology environment in relation to the visually impaired, establish an accessibility policy and statement, adopt a specific standard for all university websites called: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, Level AA. Penn State was also required to implement institution-wide training, instruction and support, among many other things, all within a relatively short timeframe.  Many other colleges and universities have faced similar challenges, and entered into legal settlements similar to the Penn State Settlement Agreement.

*Adapted from Michigan State University's Web Accessibility Legal Questions.