As higher education turns increasingly digital, disability rights advocates turn to legal measures -- and an attentive Justice Department -- to address the challenges facing students with disabilities.
iStock Miami University in Ohio last month became the latest institution to overhaul its accessibility policies for people with disabilities. Within a year and a half, students there will receive personalized accessibility plans and encounter course materials, learning platforms and websites that conform to accessibility standards. The university agreed to the overhaul as part of a settlement with Aleeha Dudley, a blind student who -- with the help of Disability Rights Ohio, a local advocacy group -- in 2014 sued over a lack of accessible course materials and trained assistants. In 2015, Dudley gained another powerful ally: the U.S. Department of Justice. Disability studies scholars and legal experts say lawsuits like Dudley’s against Miami represent a shift in activism, where high-profile cases help raise awareness about the challenges facing students in an increasingly digital world. More than two decades after the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 was signed into law, advocacy groups are pushing to clarify that it and other laws that prohibit discrimination by against people with disabilities apply to technology that at the time seemed like science fiction but now has become reality. At the same time, those and other groups are pushing for new legislation, keeping one eye on the upcoming process to rewrite the Higher Education Act. JoAnna Hunt, an accessibility manager at Blackboard, said the last five years in particular have featured large advocacy groups -- such as the National Federation of the Blind and the National Association of the Deaf -- as well as students and their parents taking a “harder look” at higher education. “Without a doubt, there’s been an increase in formalized, organized advocacy,” Hunt said in an interview. “In addition, there’s a lot more smaller, more organic, more grassroots things happening. … Students are pushing a little more for what they believe to be their civil rights to equal and equivalent educational experiences.” Of course, since the ADA was enacted (and even before), students with disabilities pushed colleges to deal with physical barriers (such as sidewalks without curb cuts and buildings one could enter only via stairs), for sign language interpreters or other accommodations that would allow them to fully benefit from all that higher education offers. While most college officials now know better than to build facilities that some students can't physically enter, many routinely overlook the accessibility issues raised by technology. Miami is far from the only university to face legal action over accessibility issues. In the last two years alone, several colleges and education companies -- Atlantic Cape Community College, edX, Harvard University and the University of Phoenix, among others -- have either been sued or settled complaints about inaccessible websites or content. And like at Miami, the Justice Department has occasionally involved itself to reach a settlement. Lennard J. Davis, a prominent disability studies scholar based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said those lawsuits highlight a trend of the last 10 years of accessibility lawsuits shifting from concerning physical to digital spaces. “The web and technology associated with sensory impairments are where it is at right now,” Davis said in an email. “The virtual and digital world has replaced the physical world as the locus for discrimination and barriers.” Visual Web Brings New Challenges Lainey Feingold, a disability rights lawyer, has worked on web accessibility issues since the late 1990s. In an interview, she said the focus of the lawsuits has changed as the internet has matured. Initially, an inaccessible web...Read the full article here