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The settlement between the US Department of Justice (DoJ) and Louisiana Tech, announced in July, is another clear indication that DoJ takes digital accessibility very seriously. This is just the latest in a string of settlements that have come to pass in the last three or four years.
But even as it seems to clarify things, there are still points that higher education institutions struggle to understand.
As an Inside Higher Ed article about the settlement mentions, the technical standards are still somewhat of a mystery to many institutions. It is true that we have both Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 standard sets to reference. But we cannot let this disparity, or the delays in updating Section 508, keep us from meeting the needs of all of our students, faculty, staff, alumni and public constituents.
I think that paralyzing an institution’s movement toward creating a more accessible digital environment because the standards aren’t completely clear is a mistake. I encourage WAHEP institutions to continue to work with the standards set out in WCAG 2.0, A and AA, as we specified in the Memoranda of Understanding. When it comes to procuring software or services, you may need to reference Section 508 simply because that is what vendors should (might) be familiar with.
In truth, though, there is nothing wrong with picking a standard set and working toward it even though things are in flux.
It is and has been abundantly clear that institutions must establish more fair and equal access to their academics and programs for students, faculty, staff and the general public. There are several steps that an institution can take to begin to address digital accessibility barriers without worrying about a particular standard set.
Universities and Colleges can use existing training materials to help content creators of all kinds make their content more accessible. If your institution has a web style guide, for example, then work in some accessibility components like using proper heading markup, writing alternative text for visual elements and improving color contrast between text and background. Throw in some techniques for handling tables and you have greatly increased the functional accessibility of the content. You have also, not coincidentally, made measurable progress toward meeting some of the standards in both Section 508 and WCAG.
If you train faculty and staff in using a tool like Microsoft Word, then make sure that the training covers basic accessibility techniques that Word supports. Simply saving a Word document as a PDF instead of using Print to PDF will improve accessibility, even if it does not make a completely accessible PDF.
The examples go on and on, but the point is that there is no reason for an institution to sit on its hands because it does not know precisely which standards to apply. Don’t let paralysis by analysis hinder the ability of students, faculty, staff or members of the public with disabilities to participate in your campus’s activities.