Some higher education institutions have faced legal action related to technology accessibility. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) share enforcement responsibility for academic and public accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. These agencies have the authority to conduct a compliance audit or to initiate an investigation in response to a complaint, which can be filed by anyone. Often, these agencies will seek to enter into a resolution agreement with the subject institution in lieu of conducting an investigation and, possibly seeking sanctions or bringing a lawsuit. Generally, the implementation of the resolution agreement includes monitoring by the investigating agency.
This page features several short summaries of resolution agreements and lawsuits that have involved technology accessibility issues, mostly in a higher education setting. In addition, see our annotated list of Legal cases by issue. Both of these resources were developed so that we and other institutions might learn from these cases and apply the knowledge to our own accessibility efforts.
Best practices for legal compliance
The following best practices were compiled based on trends observed in the resolution agreements and lawsuits summarized below.
- Conduct an accessibility audit of technology, including webpages and learning management systems
- Set institutional standards relating to accessible technology and create a method to monitor compliance
- Provide training and education about accessibility to those responsible for course-related instruction and ensure that they are aware of institutional resources
- Develop a method to procure technology that is accessible
- Create method for individuals to report any access barriers, particularly students
The following resolution agreements only apply to the institution that has entered into them. However, they are summarized here because they are instructive of the issues that OCR and DOJ have prioritized relating to accessible technology.
Louisiana Tech DOJ Resolution Agreement
A complaint was filed with DOJ by a University student who is blind. He alleged that he was unable to participate in a course based on the professor’s adoption of an internet-based application (MyOMLab), which was used for numerous aspects of coursework and was inaccessible to him. The professor also distributed inaccessible course materials. In the course of the investigation, DOJ identified “additional disability-related University policies and/or practices (including, but not limited to, the assurance of the delivery of agreed-upon modifications for students with disabilities) to be addressed in this Agreement”
NFB vs. Penn State Agreement
A complaint was filed by NFB with the Office for Civil Rights because a variety of computer and technology-based websites were inaccessible to blind students and faculty.
Individuals who have been impacted may also bring a private cause of action under the Americans with Disabilities Act and/or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
University of California at Berkeley
Settled: May 2013
Disability Rights Advocates represented three Berkeley students in negotiations with Berkeley to improve access to textbooks course readers, and library materials for students with print-related disabilities.
The resolution included:
- Creating new policies to improve provision of services and accommodations;
- Implementing a new library print conversion system to enable students to request that a book or journal be converted to accessible digital format;
- Encouraging instructors to identify course readings well before the start of classes;
- Improving the system for providing personal readers when accessible version is not available;
- Implementing scanning machines to allow students to self-scan materials into digital formats;
- Remedying barriers in it on-line library catalogue system
National Federation for the Blind (NFB) v. Maricopa Community College District
Filed: May 2012
The NFB and a blind student who recently graduated from Mesa Community College filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination against the student and other blind students. The lawsuit alleges that third-party websites and software applications used for coursework did not work with screen reading software and that clickers were used that are not accessible to blind students. Additionally, the student alleged that he was excluded from a class because he was blind. This case is still pending.
NFB v. Florida State University
Settled: March 2012
With the assistance of the National Federation for the Blind, two blind students filed a lawsuit against Florida State University alleging that the Department of Mathematics discriminated against them by failing to provide them with appropriate accommodations. The suit alleged that various inaccessible technologies were used for course instruction, including a web-based application and clickers, and that textbooks were not provided in Braille. Additionally, the students alleged they were retaliated against when they complained of the violations.
The parties reached a settlement of the case, which included:
- Payment to each student of $75,000
- That the University would review technology-based instructional materials for accessibility; and
- That the University would ensure accessibility in future software and hardware procurements.