ADA Compliance for Colleges & Universities: Laws Protecting People with Disabilities
In the United States, persons with disabilities are a protected class. Public colleges, universities, and many private institutions of higher education have a legal obligation to ensure that all environments across the campus are made accessible to all students.
Most campuses are already compliant with accessibility mandates for physical spaces, but in many cases, compliance with accessibility for digital and web-based technologies have fallen behind. Since these technologies are now vital to education, the laws governing disability access apply. Colleges and universities must take steps to achieve compliance and support their students.
However, while universities and colleges have lined up to adopt new technologies, bringing these new academic study tools into line with existing legislation has met with many obstacles. Making campuses compliant should be a priority, but first, administrators need to understand what disability laws apply and how they pertain to higher education institutions.
Schools seeking to achieve and maintain compliance must note there are both federal and state laws that may apply to their institution’s campuses. The first disability mandate to address is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
What is the ADA?
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became a law. It was designed to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The ADA applies to all public places as well as private places that are open to the general public. This includes workplaces, schools, transportation, and other areas of public life.
The purpose of this federal law is to provide civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities. The law helps ensure that anyone who has a disability can access the same rights and opportunities as anyone else. These protections are similar to protections offered by other laws on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion.
The ADA guarantees equal opportunity for any individual with a disability (or multiple disabilities) in the following five specific areas, with a Title or section addressing each one:
- Public accommodation
- State and local government services
The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) was signed into law in 2008 and went into effect on January 1, 2009. This helped to expand on and redefine “disability,” and applied to all five Titles of the ADA.
How does the ADA impact college campuses?
Each section or Title of the ADA is specific to a different area of public access for persons with disabilities. Sections that are most relevant to universities and college campuses are Title I, II, and III, in addition to Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Campuses are expected to comply unless they can prove undue hardship.
Title I of the ADA regards employment and affects employers with 15 or more employees. This section is regulated and enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
What are ADA regulations for universities under Title I?
For universities and colleges, compliance with Title I helps ensure employees with disabilities have equal opportunity rights. Employees also have the right to an accessible, safe workplace. Title I is not explicitly applicable to students unless students are also employees.
Title II of the ADA regards state and local government and affects all programs, activities, and services of public entities, including public transportation. This section is regulated and enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice.
What are ADA regulations for universities under Title II?
For universities and colleges, Title II mandates reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities. It helps ensure that public institutions will not refuse to allow students to participate in activities on the basis of disability. It also addresses transit systems that may be developed or utilized by universities and provides for accessibility regarding parking, busing, shuttle and paratransit options.
Title III of the ADA regards public accommodations. It is designed to ensure that persons with disabilities are not hindered from accessing and enjoying the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation. This section is regulated and enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice.
What are ADA regulations for universities under Title III?
For universities and colleges, Title III applies not only to the physical facilities themselves but to virtual spaces. If housing on campus is provided, it must also be made available with necessary modifications to accommodate persons with disabilities at the same cost. Accommodation must also be made for students using public-facing websites and any online courses offered. These must be made accessible to students with vision, hearing, and speech disabilities.
The Rehabilitation Act
The Rehabilitation Act prohibits the discrimination of any individual based on a disability (or disabilities) in programs receiving Federal financial assistance. It was enacted in 1973, and amended in 1998, to include equal access to electronic and information technology.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act mandates that an individual with a disability must have equal access to all programs, services, and activities receiving a federal subsidy. This includes compliance with website accessibility guidelines.
How does Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act affect colleges and universities?
Universities and colleges are required to make accommodations for equal access. This includes providing users who are deaf or hard of hearing with closed captioning for educational video content. All web-based communications are covered by this as well.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mandates that members of the public must have equal access to all web-based or electronic communications.
How does Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act affect colleges and universities?
Universities and colleges must ensure that electronic communications and information technologies. Websites, email, and web documents must all be fully accessible to all individuals regardless of disability. Closed captioning is a specific requirement for any and all video content. We can help meet this particular demand with English closed captioning for relevant content.
Individual state laws may either mirror or add to the ADA and Rehabilitation Act accessibility requirements. Many states have “little 508” laws designed to ensure enforcement of federal standards. Other state regulations directly address WCAG 2.0, the international standard for web accessibility. This standard specifically requires closed captioning and audio description for video content.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0
WCAG 2.0 is designed to offer guidance around accessibility for organizations, including Federal and State agencies, and institutions of higher education. It helps define how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities.
Content should be accessible to those with visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities. Transcriptions of audio or video content make them more accessible to users with hearing disabilities.
Why should the ADA be followed on college campuses?
Compliance with ADA and other relevant standards should be adhered to on college campuses to maintain legal compliance. Following these guidelines can also make universities more attractive to persons with disabilities. Discrimination against qualified individuals opens colleges and universities up to lawsuits.
Do private schools have to follow ADA?
Certain sections apply to private schools. Compliance may be required when materials are being used that were created using federal grants. Students who attend a university using federal or state grant money may also be protected.
Examples of ADA compliance on campuses
The following universities have made specific efforts to make their campuses (on and offline) more accessible to students with disabilities.
The University of Texas at Austin includes a range of resources for persons with disabilities, as well as a robust web accessibility policy.
Penn State’s accessibility statement also displays a commitment to strict adherence to the ADA and other relevant laws.
North Carolina State University not only maintains accessibility but has comprehensive aid for faculty members seeking to create compliant content.
After an issue was raised at Wichita State University over face to face, in-classroom accessibility, they revamped their entire accessibility program to serve students with disabilities better.
More and more universities and college campuses are working on compliance with the ADA and other accessibility standards. We can help campuses become compliant with specific standards, including mandates for closed captioning on video content.
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