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U.S. Access Board

A long-awaited update to a federal rule ups the pressure on colleges and universities to ensure that their information and communication technology services are accessible to students with disabilities, experts say.

The federal government last month finished work on updating section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which details the accessibility standards federal agencies, contractors and employers must meet both online -- like on a public-facing website -- and in person, like an information kiosk at the DMV.

Section 508 is now almost two decades old -- it was added as an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act in 1998 -- an eternity in the world of information technology. An advisory committee in 2006 recommended that section 508 be refreshed, and work on updating the rule continued throughout the Obama administration. The final rule was published in the Federal Register on Jan. 18 -- two days before the presidential transition of power.

The rule goes into effect Jan. 18, 2018, giving federal agencies a year to prepare.

Section 508 doesn’t directly address accessible technology in higher education, but it still affects colleges and universities. Some colleges have determined on their own that they are covered by the law. A handful of states (and therefore sometimes their public colleges and universities) have used the law as a blueprint for accessibility. And some federal grant programs also come with accessibility requirements based on the law.

More importantly, according to accessibility experts and groups that advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, the law helps set the tone for what the federal government sees as a baseline for accessibility policies.

“What this does is it draws a line in the sand,” said Kevin Rydberg, senior accessibility consultant with Siteimprove, a website optimization company. “For those who have used the excuse of ‘We don’t know what the rule change is going to be, so we can’t design for it,’ that excuse is now gone.”

That development is particularly important at a time when lawsuits are becoming an increasingly common strategy to compel colleges to ensure equal access to higher education for students with disabilities. Atlantic Cape Community College, Miami University in Ohio and the massive open online course provider edX are just some of the education providers that have in the last few years faced legal action from advocacy groups and students.

In the cases where those lawsuits have been resolved through settlements, many colleges have agreed to follow the accessibility standard that the federal government now has established as its baseline. The updated rule requires agencies to comply with the AA level of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, a widely recognized standard developed by the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative.

While the U.S. Department of Justice under President Obama sometimes involved itself in accessibility lawsuits against colleges, it is not certain if the department will take such an active role under Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, who has been nominated to serve as attorney general.

During the one-year window until the updated rule goes into effect, Rydberg said colleges should re-examine their design processes to ensure that accessibility is a central part of them -- not an afterthought. He recommended that colleges pay particularly close attention to digital resources and webpages intended to serve a wide audience and ensure that they conform to the accessibility standard.

“You have to have these processes built in from day one,” Rydberg said. “The time is now. Don’t wait until the deadline is looming.”

Advocacy groups such as the National Federation of the Blind welcomed the updated rule, even while pushing for education-specific accessibility guidelines. On Tuesday the NFB held an event in Washington, D.C., to push for the passage of the Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education (AIM HE) Act, which would authorize the creation of a committee to produce voluntary guidelines for course materials.

“We feel very strongly that specific guidance is needed in the area of education,” Christopher S. Danielsen, director of public relations for the NFB, said in an interview. Until new regulations that deal specifically with higher education are approved -- such as under Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 -- he said “the [section] 508 regulations are going to be the accessibility regulations that people look to to see what the government thinks accessibility looks like.”

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