How Universities Are Facing & Can Avoid Accessibility Litigation Risks

By: Sarah Roberts
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When Arturo Stevez attempted to apply to Syracuse University, he found that the school’s website was difficult or impossible to navigate. As a person who is blind, Stevez needs websites to be screen reader compatible, offer alternative text and other accommodations. Without the right tools, Stevez reported he faced “significant barriers” in the application process. 

Following the ordeal, Stevez filed a lawsuit against the university alleging violations of accessibility laws. The Stevez case isn’t unique. Nor is SU’s challenge with online accessibility. The National Law Review recently reported that 96% of university websites lack adequate accessibility features. The same issues that plagued SU’s site have prompted a string of complaints against other American universities. 

In fact, the education sector isn’t the only area experiencing these types of online accessibility lawsuits. A recent rise in similar litigation is impacting the corporate world as internet access is becoming increasingly vital for everyday life. Unfortunately, the laws that universities need to adhere to can be confusing. The lack of clarity makes it challenging to offer all of the accommodations students need. 

As an essential partner to educational institutions working to provide accessible student experiences, Automatic Sync Technologies (AST) is providing universities solutions that help them build more inclusive learning environments.

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Understanding repeat plaintiffs and “drive-by” litigation

Accessibility lawsuits sometimes come in clusters. A review of claims against all schools will illustrate the fact that there are some plaintiffs who file multiple, sometimes dozens, of lawsuits against different universities. Each claim may cite the same alleged accessibility violations. Legal professionals or critics may refer to these claims as “drive-by lawsuits.” 

Critics often question the motives of the plaintiffs and their lawyers. It’s easy to suspect that these individuals are really opportunists and not genuinely aggrieved parties. There is a sense that the plaintiff or lawyer is searching for possible weaknesses in websites, and then filing claims and hoping some of them stick. It might be tempting to dismiss these claims as illegitimate complaints from people who had no true intention of applying to the school in the first place. 

The opposing argument is that American accessibility laws clearly use litigation as their form of enforcement. For people who aren’t able to access a website, a lawsuit is the prescribed remedy. As a result, it’s likely that these claims will continue as they are often the only recourse people with disabilities have for pushing change, promoting better accessibility and getting universities to meet their legal obligations. 

Recent cases indicate that lawsuits might increase 

The National Federation of the Blind joined two former students from the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) to sue the school district for failing to meet legal accessibility standards. The plaintiffs alleged that the school’s website wasn’t accessible to screen readers. 

The LACCD argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act don’t protect against unintentional discrimination. The Circuit Court sided with the Plaintiffs, prompting the school district to appeal. The 9th Circuit affirmed the decision, holding that the two laws do protect against both intentional and unintentional discrimination. 

Most cases of discrimination are unintentional, and this type of violation is often much more difficult to avoid. Advocates for people with disabilities point out that the decision is important for accessibility. If courts limited the law to only intentional cases of discrimination it would do little to protect rights. For universities, the decision requires a more proactive approach to providing students and prospective students accessibility solutions.

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The growth of web accessibility lawsuits

Online accessibility is prompting the bulk of new ADA lawsuits. In part, recent events are causing the rise in these types of claims. When the pandemic forced schools across the world to rapidly adopt online learning plans, the need for online accessibility spiked. 

Clearly, universities need to start evaluating their online accessibility for violations of the law. However, the ADA doesn’t include specific web accessibility guidelines. Additionally, while Section 508 does specify online accessibility standards for federal government agencies, Section 504 is not so clear. Section 504 is the relevant legislation for universities.

Despite gaps in federal accessibility statutes, courts have applied the ADA’s requirements to online access. As for Section 504, a blog on specifically states that the law’s requirements apply “to facilities, and communications such as websites.” 

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a good place to start when it comes to ensuring websites meet current accessibility standards. These standards influence many online accessibility laws around the world.

Supporting students through accessibility 

Avoiding lawsuits is just one of the reasons to provide quality accessibility solutions to students. Today, more universities are focusing on creating inclusive environments that offer  improved learning experiences for every student, including those with disabilities. 

AST is helping universities by providing high-quality accessibility solutions. Here are some ways educators can aim to provide better campus accommodations.

Caption everything

Closed captions are critical for many students. Individuals with hearing loss often rely on live captions to understand course lectures both in person and online. Many educators now incorporate video into their curriculums, which they need to be captioning as well. 

However, captions should be on all online videos, including those geared toward prospective students. Forward-thinking universities should also be adding live captions to sporting events and commencement ceremonies. The objective should be to create a more inclusive campus environment beyond the classroom. 

Additionally, captions need to reach a high level of accuracy. When Harvard and MIT relied on automated captions for their online videos, the inaccuracy prompted lawsuits against those schools. AST provides the high-quality captions universities need to better serve their students to support their efforts to avoid similar legal pitfalls.

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Add audio descriptions to videos

Audio description is a solution that provides context to visual components of videos so that people who are blind can enjoy this form of content. Standard audio description inserts the description into breaks in the original video audio. However, this solution isn’t always enough, especially when educators are using videos for specific course content. 

AST offers extended audio description which allows for pauses that include additional context and details. Audio description should take into account the purpose of the video. For example, descriptions needed to convey materials in an art and design course may vary from what needs to be described in a history course. Partnering with an education specialist like AST whose team understands these needs can be helpful.

Contact us to explore how partnering with AST can benefit your university and assist in its effort to meet accessibility requirements to avoid legal situations. Our 99% accurate captions on recorded videos, live transcripts and advanced audio description solutions can provide your university with the support it needs to build a more inclusive learning environment.