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Last week when I announced this mini series on standards, one might have assumed that I would consolidate the information offered in previous blogs about what standards for which technologies/applications and why I endorse them. One would not be wrong. But I also intend to add two qualitative points to this discussion on standards. The first is grist for the mill today about a challenge specific to higher education accessibility.  The second, to be written down the road, is on the special nature of standards in technology and how that special nature creates an interesting feedback loop to law and policy of the Internet.

About accessibility for higher education in the United States: I am concerned that our institutions have two sets of standards with which to comply and how higher education might respond to that fact. The first are section 508 standards of the Rehabilitation Act.  These are the standards that came out in 2000 and are in a near-completed cycle of being refreshed. They apply to the federal government but have also served as the default for a number of vendors, institutional policies and state governments. The other set is that of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or “WCAG” 2.0.  WCAG is a practice group within the World Wide Consortium, true to its name, although heavily influenced by the developers in the EU. In the 1.0 format these standards represented more a set of guidelines than specifics.  In some instances, the guidelines rose above section 508, and, depending on how one interpreted them, sometimes below 508, which tend to be rather static and detailed.  WCAG 2.0 has levels that drill down to greater specifics. Its “AA” version tend to be the minimum that entities use in policy and implementation procedures.

The Rehabilitation Act, which was first promulgated in 1973, applies to students.  It is the legislation that has long required schools to make accommodation for students with disabilities. For example, while a private institution in let’s say 2005 did not have to implement full-scale web accessibility, as did the Federal government and its agencies after section 508 came out, it did have to accommodate individual students.  In terms of web content, section 508 created a baseline of standards by which a private institution would demonstrate compliance.

Congress promulgated the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Title III applies to all colleges and universities, public and private. It applies to students as well as to faculty and staff, and, in some cases, even the public attending a lecture of other such event on a campus. It was not until about five years ago or so that case law firmly established that the law encompassed the Internet, web space and information technologies. Because the question then emerged, “what standards demonstrate compliance,” the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Justice recently used the administrative process to designate WCAG 2.0 AA as the standards that apply to the federal government and its agencies. It is assumed that OCR will commence a process by which those same standards will become the foundation for Title II (state governments) and Title III (which includes higher education among other entities that offer services to the public). 

How will higher education demonstrate compliance in light of these two sets of standards that both apply to it?  It is in the face of such quandaries that I can appreciate higher education’s general resistance to regulation. Having to comply with both sets is truly an interesting challenge to say the least.

But it is not an insurmountable one. That observation would be especially true if instead of hiding behind its tropes of “don’t regulate us!” higher education took the initiative on both the legislative and implementation fronts. Government Officer(s) should proactively begin to address this question with its contacts in the associations and federal government.  The conversation be around how higher education wants to be compliant and believes it has an active role to play in accessibility.  Let’s work together with consumer and advocacy groups either to have information ahead of regulatory process that harmonizes section 508 (especially in its refresh format) and WCAG 2.0 AA.  And make that harmonization the foundation of the legislative and/or administrative process. 

Web accessibility standards play an extraordinary role in global disabilities rights. By the very nature of technology, standards incentivize vendors to integrate standards across the board of their products; that fact greases the wheels of procurement; and these standards create a level playing field for people with and without disabilities who use the Internet.  These opportunities explain the enthusiasm for standards in this web and technology space and should not be dampened by unduly complicating factors such as different nation-state sets, US, the EU or anyplace else.  Rather than hanging back and wishing that the issue would go away (it won’t), higher education should take the lead in creating a cross nation-state discussion on this topic.  By helping the world, it can help itself. 

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