New accessibility updates: what higher education needs to do and know

Guest blog post by higher education accessibility experts Little Forest.

In this guest blog post by Little Forest, we look into the new web and mobile app accessibility standards in detail. 

Why is Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act needed?

In the U.S. the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has long required public entities, including higher education institutions, to provide equal access to their services, programs, and activities.

As technology has advanced, this mandate has extended to the digital realm, including government websites and mobile applications.

But many institutions have been struggling to comply and ensure their websites are fully accessible to individuals with disabilities.

To address this, the U.S. Department of Justice created new technical standards for web content and mobile app accessibility, now known as  Title II.

It aims to provide concrete guidance on how to fulfill their ADA obligations and ensure equal access to government services for all.

Why are new rules relevant to higher education institutions?

Title II of the ADA prohibits the exclusion of individuals with disabilities from participating in or benefiting from the services, programs, or activities of public entities.

So if you're responsible for a public-facing website, like your university’s site or platform, you have a responsibility to ensure that the content is compliant.

It’s also expected for private websites to fall under the legislation within two years.

Are you ready?

As more  higher education services go online, it’s becoming essential for accessible web content and mobile apps to be accessible for everyone..

Higher education websites and apps often allow students to access a wide range of essential services, from obtaining information and corresponding with the university, to paying fees, applying for financial aid, and registering for classes.

But if these digital services aren’t designed to be accessible, they can effectively exclude individuals with disabilities, just like physical barriers can prevent access to campus buildings.

So Title II sets out technical standards on making web content and mobile apps accessible, which helps higher education (and government) institutions meet ADA obligations.

Accessible digital services promote equal access and support the equal enjoyment of fundamental constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech, assembly, and due process.

What are the key requirements of the new rule?

The new rule outlines specific technical requirements to make  higher education and government  web content and mobile applications accessible.

These standards are based on widely recognized accessibility guidelines, such as:

  • the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG Version 2.1, Level AA is the technical standard); and
  • the Mobile Accessibility: Web Content and Apps (MWCAG) guidelines.

Here are the key requirements you should know about and what you need to do.

1. Web Content Accessibility

  • Providing text alternatives for non-text content (e.g., images, videos, audio)
  • Ensuring that all functionality is available from a keyboard
  • Providing clear and consistent navigation and orientation cues
  • Ensuring that content is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust

2. Mobile App Accessibility

  • Ensuring that all app functionality is accessible to users with disabilities
  • Providing clear instructions and guidance for using accessibility features
  • Ensuring that the app's user interface is designed for accessibility
  • Providing alternative ways to access content and complete tasks

By following these standards, universities and colleges can help ensure that individuals with a wide range of disabilities, including those with visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, and neurological impairments, can access and use your services and programs.

What happens next?

Title II of ADA and higher education.

The new web and mobile app accessibility standards for public entities are a significant step in fulfilling the Americans with Disabilities Act's (ADA) promise of equal access and opportunity for all.

By setting up concrete technical requirements for accessible digital services, this legislation will help ensure that individuals with disabilities can fully engage with their higher education institution and exercise their fundamental rights.

While these particular standards only apply to government entities and public universities and colleges in the United States, they set an important precedent that’s likely to influence the broader digital landscape.

As essential services and information increasingly move online, the need for universal accessibility is more critical than ever.

This legislation shows a strong commitment to digital inclusion, emphasizing that accessible web content and mobile apps are not only a legal requirement but also a moral and ethical responsibility.

In the years ahead, the principles and standards established in this rule will likely be increasingly adopted by private sector organizations as well.

Consumers, advocacy groups, and even the courts will probably use these guidelines as a benchmark for what constitutes meaningful accessibility.

Businesses that proactively embrace these standards will not only be better positioned to serve customers with disabilities but also to demonstrate their values and commitment to inclusion.

Ultimately, the new web and mobile app accessibility standards represent a critical step forward in the ongoing struggle for disability rights.

By tearing down digital barriers and ensuring equal access to government services, this legislation brings us closer to the ADA's vision of a truly inclusive society.

While there’s still much work to be done, this rule stands as a testament to the power of law to drive positive change and create a more just and equitable world for all.

Practical steps for higher education to act on now

  1. Assess current accessibility: Thoroughly review all your websites and mobile apps to identify any accessibility issues or barriers. This should include testing with users who have disabilities to get a comprehensive understanding of the current state of accessibility.
  2. Develop an Accessibility Plan: Create a detailed plan to address the accessibility gaps you’ve identified. This should include timelines, resource requirements, and strategies to make the improvements you need to meet the new regulations.
  3. Publish Accessibility Statements: Ensure that an up-to-date accessibility statement is published for each website and mobile app, as required by the regulations. These statements should clearly communicate the level of accessibility, any known issues, and how users can provide feedback or request alternative format
  4. Provide accessibility training: Invest in training for web development, design, and content teams to ensure they understand the accessibility requirements and best practices. This will be crucial for maintaining compliance going forward.
  5. Implement monitoring and reporting: Establish processes to regularly monitor the accessibility of digital services and report on progress, as mandated by the regulations. This should include mechanisms for users to report accessibility problems.
  6. Engage with stakeholders: Proactively engage with disability organisations, accessibility experts, and the public to gather feedback and input on accessibility efforts. This will help ensure the needs of users with disabilities are being met.
  7. Allocate sufficient resources: Ensure that adequate budget, staffing, and expertise are dedicated to accessibility initiatives. Treating this as a priority will be key to achieving and maintaining compliance.
  8. Enforce accessibility requirements: Develop and enforce clear policies that require all new and updated digital services to meet the specified accessibility standards. This will help embed accessibility into the development process.

By taking these proactive steps, your university or college can demonstrate your commitment to digital inclusion and fulfill your legal obligations under the new accessibility regulations.

Prioritizing accessibility will ultimately benefit all your users and help ensure equal access to essential higher education services.

Want to know more about what this means for you?

Read the New Rule on the Accessibility of Web Content and Mobile Apps Provided by State and Local Governments factsheet or contact Little Forest for more information about how you can stay or become compliant.

This article is a guest post by Little Forest.

Formed in London in 2007, Little Forest provides award-winning website Quality and Accessibility software, an essential part of any web strategy. Little Forest is a company that believes in creating a brighter future one day at a time and that in measuring and planning what to improve, we can make our lives better, no matter where we start from. The Little Forest service monitors websites and helps people improve the quality of the customer experience by working to make better websites by creating better habits in your teams.