• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).



Cloud computing, accessibility standards and the Higher Education Act.

September 17, 2014
Below is a paper I am writing for another purpose and a European audience, but in light of the current debate about accessibility and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act I have decided to give IHE readers a first review option.  The main point of the article is that, for once, the developed world is converging on the same standards for accessibility: WCAG 2.0 AA as a minimum.  Higher education should take advantage of this convergence, no, wait, better yet: become a leader in promoting it.  It is good for institutions to know precisely what the standards are, for web developers, for vendors and most important, for people who require those standards for web access.  I, too, object to the Higher Education Act becoming the vehicle for every interest group to shove their goals down our throats: witness the peer to peer provisions that remain in the Act courtesy of the content industry, circa 2008.  But in rejecting forced provisions not well thought out is not to reject what benefits us all overall, especially in light of this unique opportunity to move forward together.

Accessibility Standards in Cloud Computing: A Look at the U.S. versus the EU Landscape

Disruptive technological shifts present a variety of opportunities and challenges; cloud computing is no exception. One clear area of opportunity is web accessibility. A disabled web user often faces considerable challenges when navigating various systems and interfaces. Some are accessible, some are not, and each person’s disability is specific. For example, individuals must set the speed of screen readers to the site, make special arrangements for transcripts or captions, test for flashing lights or access pages responsive to the user’s form of human-computer interface. Cloud computing offers the possibility of a suite of services harmonized within a set of conventions. This, in turn, makes the interaction uniform, predictable, and, if managed well by vendors, accessible to a wide range of users with a spectrum of communicative, visual, hearing, cognitive and motor disabilities. All in all, uniform standards deployed across applications and platforms greatly support accessibility.

A Look at the Accessibility Regulations in the EU vs. the U.S.

How do accessibility laws and regulations compare between the European Union (EU) and the United States (U.S.)? The EU and the U.S. tend to take different approaches to civil law: the former a deductive, “top-down” approach, and the latter a precedential, inductive, or “bottom-up” system. In both cases, however, the result is the same – a convergence of laws, technology and the market. Both the EU and the U.S. have signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons of Disabilities. While the U.S. has yet to ratify the document, its principles revolve around the elimination of discriminatory practices as well as accommodations to allow disabled individuals to live, work and have enjoyment of public spaces without significant obstacles or impediments. These “spaces” explicitly include cyberspace. 

A Brief History of Accessibility Regulations

The EU ratified the United Nations Rights document in December of 2010. The U.S. has signed, but not ratified this document.  In keeping with its deductive approach, the EU has directed the implementation of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA standards (WCAG 2.0 AA) for its own agencies. These technical standards serve as the foundation for individual countries as well.[1]  The deductive approach is not perfect. Its comprehensive nature is appealing, but often leaves enforcement violations subject to the authority of local, regional or even national bodies. The greatest benefit lies in setting a uniform standard across a broad cultural landscape – one that’s in keeping with the breadth and scope of the internet.

In the U.S., politicians and fellow proponents of American “exceptionalism” – those of the belief that the U.S. should not be influenced by the laws or norms of other countries – have made a political fuss about ratification of this U.N. document, just as their views kept the U.S. from signing the original U.N. Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But their protestations have not kept the U.S. from moving in the same direction as the EU. The U.S. has existing anti-discrimination laws for people with disabilities – most notably, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Again, we see the U.S. deductive approach at play. Earlier this year, the Civil Rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice has begun the process of adding WCAG 2.0 AA standards to Title II of the ADA. Title II sets forth controls for government agencies. The new standard will require another “notice and comment” period for Title III, which will address public accommodations, business and the corporate (for profit and not-for profit) sector.

Universal Accessibility Standards – A Boon for Disabled Users and Vendors Alike

This legal confluence between the EU and the U.S. is a boon for IT vendors. It provides a clear target for software development. But this wasn’t always the case. Progress is, in part, due to the developmental nature of technology.  In the early, innovative years of the internet, standards varied widely depending on the governing body that developed them.  For example, The World Wide Web Consortium issued a “1.0” version.  The United States issued standards in its “section 508” amendment to the Rehabilitation Act in the U.S.  Drawing from each of these sources, and sometimes adding others, many jurisdiction and institutions designed their own hybrid set. However, software coders have not only embraced the overarching notion that accessible design is good design, but the specific WCAG standards as a universal – be that be in the EU or the U.S.  That is why, for once, the distinctions between the two legal systems matter less for accessibility than in other areas of law and privacy where differences still exist.  

Looking forward, there is value for the market to respond to this harmonization. The maturation of cloud computing technologies overlaps with the developmental stage of web design. The harmonization of standards, irrespective of legal regimes, creates an opportunity for everyone: vendors, jurists and technologists. Most importantly, it benefits the community of disabled users who need and deserve an accessible web environment. 



[1] In Europe, only Iceland, Sweden and the Netherlands have signed (but not ratified) the U.N. document – similar to the U.S.


I would like to acknowledge Livia Piotto, a reference librarian at John Cabot University in Rome, for the research assistance on the European Union references for this article.





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