What does it mean to "effectively communicate" website content to individuals with disabilities as required by Section 504 and the ADA?

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AccessIT Article ID: 1227

The "effectively communicate" standard was used by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in complaint resolution agreements with postsecondary institutions to determine whether the means of communication (meaning the transfer of information, whether via media, print or the Internet) of the postsecondary institution satisfied the legal obligations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (§504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

According to OCR, the three basic components of effectiveness are (1) the timeliness of delivery, (2) the accuracy of the translation, and (3) provision in a manner and medium appropriate to the significance of the message and the abilities of the individual with the disability. (OCR 09-97-2002.RES) For example, if a university website is inaccessible to a visually impaired student, the university is still required under federal law to "effectively communicate" the information on the website to the student. If the website is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for other users, the information must be available that way for the visually impaired student. There are several ways this communication could be accomplished, but none is likely to be as practical or meet the effectiveness standard as well as if the website were accessible in the first place.

In the recent Department of Justice (DOJ) document, Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities, DOJ does not discuss the effectively communicate standard. However, the document does state that one way to ensure that governmental websites are accessible to individuals with disabilities is to provide "accessible features." Although DOJ acknowledges that there may be ways other than "accessible features" on the websites to provide access to the information such as a "staffed telephone information line," the document states that:

These alternatives, however, are unlikely to provide an equal degree of access in terms of hours of operation and the range of options and programs available. For example, job announcements and application forms, if posted on an accessible website, would be available to people with disabilities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Note: This article is an excerpt from the larger AccessIT document Web Accessibility and Individuals with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: The Legal Issues.

Last update or review: January 24, 2013