Officials to develop online accessibility plan after federal disability probe closes

Media Credit: Ethan Stoler | Contributing Photo Editor

The University will develop a plan to guarantee that new online content is accessible and students can put in a request if a website feature isn’t user-friendly.

Following the closure of a federal investigation questioning the accessibility of GW’s websites, the University is employing new strategies to detect inaccessible content online.

The move comes after the University fell under federal investigation in April 2017 after a complaint, which has not yet been released to the public, accused GW of disability discrimination based on the accessibility of its websites. Officials said the investigation into the complaint has concluded, and the University will develop a plan to guarantee that new online content is accessible and students can put in a request if a website feature isn’t user-friendly.

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said GW is continuing to “cooperate fully” with the Office for Civil Rights to ensure compliance with federal disability laws, and will develop a strategy to identify inaccessible content and provide notice to online users about how to request access to content if something is inaccessible. The University will also devise a plan to ensure new digital content is accessible, she said.

“Ensuring an inclusive and accessible environment is a priority for the University,” Csellar said in an email. “The University’s task force on digital accessibility is continuing to meet and is moving forward with efforts to improve digital accessibility across GW.”

Csellar did not provide additional details of the proposed plans to improve online accessibility and did not specify when the inquiry ended.

The University formed a task force earlier this year, including officials from External Relations, the Division of Information Technology, the Division of Student Affairs and the Office of the Provost, to examine potential website accessibility issues for students with disabilities. At the time, officials said GW used several free and subscription-based services to monitor the accessibility of the University’s online features.

GW was one of more than 2,000 elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools that faced federal disability investigations as of January. While the federal investigation focused on online accessibility, the University has also been scrutinized in recent years for the physical accessibility of its campuses.

A former GW plumber sued the University last year for allegedly terminating his employment after his supervisors discriminated against him based on his disability. An alumnus also filed a lawsuit against the University in 2016 after he alleged that he didn’t receive the same educational opportunities as his peers because he had a disability.

Students have also said several of GW’s buildings and properties do not boast elevators and other accessible features, making it difficult to navigate campus.

Disability experts said creating a strategy to ensure website accessibility should include a method for students to report aspects of a page that are difficult to use, which GW’s websites currently lack. Experts also said GW should rely on a combination of electronic systems and staff specializing in accessible technology to audit its online features.

Rosa Gonzalez, the director of compliance with federal disability laws for the Diversity and Access Office at Stanford University, said any time a department or office wants to make a major software purchase for academic use, there should be a standardized policy that evaluates the accessibility of the new technology to avoid investing in a product with accessibility issues.

Gonzalez said universities can audit pages more frequently based on the traffic they receive. She said Stanford maintains a list of the university’s top 70 websites, which may change day-to-day, and assigns employees to inspect the pages.

“It’s a tough job because there’s lots of moving parts, people are constantly putting up new websites and updating things,” she said.

Gonzalez added that the University could assist its online users by including a tagline at the bottom of its web pages that leads to a feedback form, where students and staff indicate what parts of a website are inaccessible. Stanford’s web pages include such a tagline, she said.

Dan Newsome, the adaptive technology lab coordinator at the University of Maryland, said universities need to assess accessibility for websites beyond closed-captions and screen readers for students who have hearing or vision impairments.

He said students who are colorblind or who have processing delays are sometimes neglected when features are being updated or corrected, and universities should also evaluate their color and text choices to accommodate these students.

“It’s something a lot of universities are thinking about right now,” Newsome said.

Britt Neff, the access coordinator for the Disability Resources for Students Office at the University of Washington, said universities should have automated electronic systems review the accessibility of online features. She said faculty and administrators should also partner to regularly evaluate online accessibility.

“The first part will identify what the problem is, but it won’t fix it,” Neff said. “You need the partnership so you can change the material that’s being inputted into the system.”

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