On May 19, 2023, the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Justice Department (DOJ) issued a joint letter addressing barriers that college students with disabilities face while accessing online services, programs, and activities—an issue that has become particularly acute since educational delivery moved online in response to the COVID pandemic. The letter acknowledges higher education’s increasing reliance on online platforms and the challenges that students with disabilities commonly encounter when engaging with these platforms. The letter also reminds institutions of their obligations under federal laws and recently issued guidance, highlights key enforcement actions by both departments, and provides information on where college students and members of the public can go to get help or file complaints related to digital access at higher education institutions.  

In the joint letter, OCR and DOJ remind institutions that many individuals with disabilities require auxiliary aids and services when accessing and interacting with online content, such as screen readers, captioning, and voice recognition software. But while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act require higher education institutions to provide equal opportunities to people with disabilities in all their operations—including to members of the public who are offered access to their programs—many colleges and universities have fallen short. 

OCR and DOJ appear to be ramping up their oversight efforts on this issue. In December 2022, a federal district court approved a consent decree between DOJ and the Regents of the University of California that requires UC Berkeley to make public online content on its website and other platforms compliant with federal law, revise its policies and training, designate a web accessibility coordinator, and hire an independent auditor to review its online programming. OCR, meanwhile, has resolved and monitored more than 1,000 cases over the past few years in response to discrimination complaints related to digital access, including the accessibility of websites, learning management systems, password-protected student content, and mass email blasts. In May 2022, OCR proactively initiated 100 compliance reviews of digital accessibility at higher education institutions, K-12 schools, state departments of education, and public libraries, resolving over 50 of them thus far. 

The joint letter provides a link to a DOJ website, “Guidance on Web Accessibility and the ADA,” created earlier this year. The DOJ website lists common accessibility issues and contains further resources and guidance for businesses and public bodies to increase ease of access on their public-facing online platforms in compliance with the ADA. Finally, the letter lists phone numbers and websites to call or visit to ask questions or report complaints regarding online accessibility. 

If you have any questions about how to make your digital content more accessible for all your students, or any questions regarding your institution’s compliance with ADA and other federal disability laws, please feel free to reach out to a Franczek attorney. 


Email this postTweet this postLike this postShare this post on LinkedIn