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Cal students in the Doe Library at UC Berkeley.
Cal students in the Doe Library at UC Berkeley. Credit: Alison Yin/Hechinger Report

When a leading research university announces the removal of more than 20,000 course videos and podcasts from the public, in response to a U.S. Department of Justice ruling, such a move should not go unnoticed.

The DOJ launched its investigation of the University of California, Berkeley in response to complaints from the National Association of the Deaf asserting that Berkeley’s online videos did not contain closed captioning. Under Titles II and III of the Americans with Disability Act ,public and private universities must ensure that any content made available is accessible, unless meeting accessibility guidelines would result in a fundamental alteration or undue administrative and financial burdens.

This was a standard that U.C. Berkeley did not establish, and they were not alone. The DOJ has initiated investigations of colleges and universities from Arizona State to MIT. The scrutiny, while challenging for these organizations, can yield improved accessibility of digital content over time if organizations heed the call.

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Organizations today — whether colleges and universities or third-party providers — are investing considerable funds and effort in building technology platforms, content, features that make the content discoverable and usable, and an interface that allows users to navigate the resource. Many are also joining to support passage of the Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education (AIM HE) Act. The Berkeley case teaches us to be attentive to accessibility up front, not simply because of legal requirements but because digital resources designed to meet accessibility standards support increased access for all.

“Accessibility is not optional.”

Creating and maintaining an accessible digital resource — a resource where the content, functionalities, and navigability of the website delivering the content meet accessibility standards—is no simple feat. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA standards require providers to support visual, auditory, and manual accessibility. To create accessible resources requires an understanding of these standards, routine monitoring, testing, evaluation, and most important, building accessibility into the DNA of code development and web design.

Success requires commitment from an organization’s leaders, as well as resources to support the work. Accessibility must be seen as essential, not only to meet requirements but because accessible design is good design, improving the user experience for all. Software developers need to understand accessibility requirements and know that they are obligated to meet them. Employers need to train developers in accessibility. Accessibility compliance also involves sustained commitment. As new features and functionalities are added to existing services, these too need to be evaluated to ensure they meet standards, and teams must continually monitor the landscape for new technologies that might lower costs, improve accessibility, or create requirements.

At ITHAKA, we introduced accessibility compliance into the JSTOR online library of scholarly journals in 2000, recognizing that this move would be consistent with JSTOR’s non-profit mission of furthering access to scholarly resources. Furthering access meant not only overcoming geographic and socio-economic barriers to information access, but also leveraging the ways digital resources could reach individuals with disabilities. As noted by Judge Harold Baer in the 2012 lower court decision in the Authors Guild, Inc. v. HathiTrustcase, “…[A]cademic participation by print-disabled students has been revolutionized by the [digital books]”.

The timing turned out to be fortuitous. We had just redesigned our website, complete with accessible navigation and a method to enable the use of screen readers with the content, when a large state-wide university system seeking to license JSTOR for all of its institutions stipulated in its procurement contract that the resource needed to meet their accessibility standards.

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The benefits of such a commitment include helping libraries, museums, colleges, and universities to meet their requirements as well as enabling a broad community of researchers and scholars to make productive use of the JSTOR library.

Not to be taken at all lightly, there are enormous costs to accessible information. JSTOR is fortunate to be a financially sustainable digital resource that can invest in accessibility, but this commitment requires ongoing vigilance and planning as organizations take on new content—including images, video, or hand-written documents—and redesign platforms to keep pace with technology.

It could not have been easy for UC Berkeley to decide to remove public access to educational materials. Like so many other aspects of digital transformation, it will take time for accessibility to become part of the fabric of how digital resources are created and improved, and for organizations to put more time, money, and effort into doing so. But it will happen, and we’ll all be better for it. Accessibility is not optional.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Nancy Kopans is vice president, general counsel and secretary of ITHAKA, a higher education nonprofit focused on the use of digital technologies.

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