Website accessibility is a solvable problem for CIOs

Colleges and universities can find protection from lawsuits and better serve students with easy fixes

Perkins Solutions VP Bill Oates

Bill Oates, Vice-President of Perkins Solutions, is the former CIO for the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

February 26, 2016

IT security is one of the most pressing problems facing chief information officers and other institutional leaders today. The consequences of data breaches are immense, both because of financial and reputational fallout.

Bill Oates spent seven years as the CIO of the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Just like in higher education, IT security was one of his chief sources of worry.

"That's a big challenge and it's a really hard one to fix because the threats keep changing and getting more complex," Oates said.

Now, as vice president of Perkins Solutions, a division of Perkins School for the Blind, Oates looks at issues of digital accessibility and sees a very different issue.

"This isn't like we're having a constant change going on out there that prevents us from being accessible," Oates said. "You can deal with this."

While the Americans with Disabilities Act was written before the internet age truly took off and a long-gestating refresh of the law has yet to be passed, federal regulations still require colleges and universities collecting federal money to be accessible to people with disabilities. That, of course, means making buildings accessible. It also means making school websites and online coursework equally accessible.

Since 1990, when the ADA was passed, higher education institutions have transformed, migrating much of their operations online. While this has created some new difficulties for people who are blind or have limited mobility and can't navigate websites with a mouse, for example, new technologies have kept up with these needs. There are concrete ways to make digital resources accessible and stay in line with federal regulations.

As Oates says, it is possible to lay the foundation for long-term sustainability and check accessibility off the list of things CIOs have to worry about.

Perkins Solutions has launched Perkins Access to help organizations evaluate accessibility, improve physical and digital spaces, and put a set of policies and best practices in place to ensure long-term compliance. This insulates organizations from lawsuits and gives them the opportunity to serve a broader current and prospective pool of students, faculty, and staff.

As Congress continues to consider updates to the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, the courts seem to be in general agreement about the responsibilities of institutions. Some of the colleges that are farthest along on their path to full digital accessibility have implemented reforms because of settlement agreements following lawsuits or other complaints. These schools have appointed accessibility officers, created new policies and training programs, and focused on holistic access.

Fixes that make a big difference:

  1. Provide alternative text for images on websites. This gives people who can't see the images a description of what they show.
  2. Title every page so people exploring the website through a navigation list can find what they're looking for easily.
  3. Create a sitemap so people using screen readers can skip to navigation instead of going through dozens of tabs to reach their destination.
  4. Pay attention to color contrast, helping people with low vision or color blindness access a website.

While many expected updates to the accessibility regulations to be approved this year, those changes will likely wait for the next administration. Existing regulation, however, provides plenty of fodder for individuals and advocacy groups to bring lawsuits — as many schools have already discovered.

"There is no reason to wait for further regulation," Oates said. "We can do it right now."

This article was posted in the February 26, 2016, edition of Education Dive, a daily online education news publication.