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Inclusive, Accessible Publishing in Higher Education

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Students with special needs often have difficulty accessing printed books and learning materials. With the adoption of digital publishing technology, educators now provide access to information for most students who cannot use traditional course materials. Adaptive reading systems enable a rich reading and learning experience for more students than ever before.

While it is in their best interest to cater to the broadest student base possible, colleges and universities now have specific legal obligations with respect to the accessibility of their digital learning materials and technologies for students with disabilities. This is a good thing. Recent policy developments and guidelines emphasize just how important it is to make accessibility considerations a priority. As post-secondary institutions increasingly use digital technology in their instructional programming, it is imperative for everyone to understand the underlying legal and policy parameters in effect.

The number of students with disabilities enrolled in institutions of higher education is growing every year. The trends suggest that more than half of these students are enrolled in community colleges. At the same time as the technology has improved and become more affordable and user-friendly, post-secondary institutions have increasingly begun to embrace the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of online learning and digital learning materials. This shift toward increased digitization holds great promise for students who may struggle with traditional, print-based materials and for those who have mobility challenges.

Given the potential barriers to accessibility, educational institutions need to be careful in selecting the digital learning materials and technologies they use to ensure that they are in fact inclusive. In the past several years, there have been increased numbers of complaints filed with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education and the Civil Rights Division (CRD) of the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the accessibility of digital content, online delivery systems, and technologies. It is more important than ever for colleges and universities to be aware of their legal obligations in order to ensure that all of their students are able to participate in and benefit from these new learning opportunities, and to make sure that they stay within the laws as they evolve.

At this time, two disability-related civil rights laws govern the obligations of  public and private institutions of higher learning with respect to the accessibility of digital learning materials and online courses. These are Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all post-secondary institutions that receive federal funding, including schools that accept federal financial aid. Title II of the ADA applies to all public colleges and universities, regardless of whether they receive federal funding. Title III of the ADA applies to private colleges and universities.

To recap:

Section 504

Prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs and activities that receive federal funding.

29 U.S.C § 794(a)

 Title II of the ADA

Prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all public entities, including public colleges and universities, regardless of whether they receive federal funding.

42 U.S.C. § 12132

Title III of the ADA

Prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation, including private post-secondary institutions.

42 U.S.C. §§ 12181(7)(J), 12182(a)