Digital resources for libraries—including digital databases and e-book versions of their print counterparts—have gained in popularity over the past decade and are embraced by general readers as well as educators and learners at all levels of education, from kindergarten through graduate school. With the COVID-19 crisis forcing a rapid shift to remote and distance learning around the world, the issue of the accessibility of digital resources becomes even more prominent.
For users with disabilities—especially blind students who use screen readers—digital resources are a tremendous opportunity as well as a potential barrier. On the one hand, they make things accessible that were previously inaccessible; on the other, they pose unique challenges. Publishers and producers of educational materials—including leading educational publishers like Cengage, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson—as well as the universities that buy those materials for their faculty and students, have long been working toward making digital resources accessible to users with special needs.
This year, however, marks a turning point in what is required of universities and colleges across the United States on the matter of accessibility. All institutions of learning that receive federal aid are now legally required to make their digital learning materials accessible to students, including those with disabilities. This means their products must be compatible with all screen readers and keyboards and must be designed in ways that enable efficient navigation. If they are not able to make their resources fully accessible—this, of course, depends on various factors—they must provide reasonable alternatives in a timely manner. Failure to comply may result in a complaint to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights or a discrimination lawsuit.
Since the advent of the Internet and digital resources, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has put pressure on the institutions that put blind students at a disadvantage for not doing enough to meet their needs. The list of complaints and lawsuits filed against educational institutions in the United States since the turn of the century is astonishingly long. Those that have already faced liability for inaccessible web content and technologies include not only community colleges (Atlantic Cape, NJ; Los Angeles Community College District), private online universities (Capella), private rural universities (Finlandia University, MI) and test preparation organizations (BarBri Bar Review) but also many large state universities (e.g., Colorado, California, Arizona, Florida) and the heavy-weights like Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and NYU. The list continues to grow even in mid-2020, as new institutions face lawsuits for discrimination including, most recently, Duke University.
Among the lawsuits, complaints and settlements that have shaped the narrative of accessibility stands one discrimination lawsuit that took place last year and greatly contributed to making ADA compliance a legal requirement in the United States. Last August, the NFB, its California affiliate, and two blind students, Roy Payan and Portia Mason, won their disability discrimination lawsuit against the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD). Payan claimed that the website he needed to access for his schoolwork was inaccessible and that he couldn’t read a text in PDF with a screen reader program called Job Access with Speech (JAWS) on Pearson‘s MyMathLab digital courseware platform. He also said he was redirected to the Office of Students with Disabilities at the university a number of times and that what took the average student there an hour and a half to two hours to complete took him about 18 hours.
The Court found that LACCD violated his rights because it failed to provide him and students like him with accessible course materials and, therefore, it failed to fulfill its basic duty to provide equal access to education to all students. The Court also found that LACCD failed to provide materials from an equivalent math textbook as an alternative and ordered the college to appoint a dean of educational technology who would enforce accessibility policies and make LACCD’s web site, along with all other educational technologies, fully accessible to students with disabilities.