Colleges Face Investigations Over Whether Their Use of Social Media Follows Accessibility Regulations

Nearly 200 colleges face federal civil rights investigations opened in 2019 about whether they are accessible and communicate effectively to people with disabilities. Among the newer aspects of these kinds of complaints is whether college social media communication meets accessibility standards.

While some institutions have tried to punt responsibility for the accessibility of digital tools to the companies that produce them, that reasoning hasn’t persuaded federal agencies or judges. It’s analogous to how colleges must ensure there are ramps and elevators even in rented classroom space, says Cyndi Rowland, executive director of WebAIM, a project at the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University.

“The courts said, ‘you made the decision to go there,’ and that’s exactly what the courts are saying now: ‘This social media thing isn’t accessible, but you made the decision to use it, and that’s your responsibility,’’’ Rowland says. “Courts are saying you need to procure digital goods and services that are accessible for everybody.”

As a result, colleges are rolling out social media accessibility standards and training communications staff members to take advantage of built-in accessibility tools in platforms including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Complaints and Lawsuits

Public colleges and libraries are prohibited by law from discriminating against people with disabilities, as are private educational institutions that receive federal funds, including accepting students taking out federal loans. Federal agencies and courts have interpreted that these regulations govern not only materials that colleges develop themselves, but also other digital tools they use or purchase.

Many of this year’s complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights focus on the extent to which students, faculty and others can make full use of a college’s websites, education software and social media channels.

Students enrolled at specific institutions make some of these complaints, while others come from activists. Marcie Lipsitt, founder of the Michigan Alliance for Special Education, told The 74 that she has filed thousands of federal civil rights complaints about school websites.

The filings likely represent only a small number of the actual problems people with disabilities encounter at institutions of higher education, Rowland says. Inaccessible social media posts and websites can prevent students from applying for on-campus jobs, registering for classes, using library resources, learning about events and opportunities and paying tuition bills.

“For every person that actually gets to the place they complain, there’s probably 100 more who are frustrated but who don’t want to complain,” Rowland says. “Consumers with disabilities are kind of tired of having to ask or be put in the position to endlessly complain.”

Complainants are not only registering their concerns about online resources with the government. As people grow frustrated with the slow pace of change at universities, there’s been a rise in related discrimination litigation, according to Rowland.

For example, last fall, a blind man filed 50 lawsuits against colleges whose websites he said didn’t work with his screen reader. And on August 21, in Payan v. Los Angeles Community College District, the Federal District Court for the Central District of California ruled that Los Angeles Community College failed to provide a blind student with “meaningful access to his course materials” via MyMathLab, software developed by Pearson, in a timely manner.

“I’m telling you, some institutions are filling out the right paperwork and saying the right things in reports but they’re not really fixing the problem,” Rowland says. “That next time, [complainants] are not going back to the Office for Civil Rights; they’re getting an attorney.”

Complying with Regulations

Social media platforms have some accessibility features that college communicators can use to help bring their institutions into compliance. YouTube and Facebook have options to automatically generate captions on videos posted there, while Twitter users with access to its still-developing Media Studio can upload videos with captions. Users can provide alt-text, or descriptive language describing images, through Facebook, TwitterInstagram and Hootsuite.

Universities are working to create procedures for ensuring official social media posts take advantage of these options and are otherwise as accessible as possible. California State University at Long Beach, for instance, advises posting main information first and hashtags last to make messages clear for people using screen readers. The University of Minnesota calls for indicating whether hyperlinks point to [AUDIO], [PIC], or [VIDEO]. This summer, leaders at the College of William & Mary held a training workshop for the institution’s communications staff in response to an Office for Civil Rights investigation.

“As for W&M, the university is committed to accessibility on the web and social media, and we appreciate OCR’s review, which has provided us with opportunities to improve our practices in a changing legal landscape,” said Erin Zagursky, associate director of University News at The College of William & Mary, in an email interview.

Yet suggestions and trainings may not go far enough. Institutions should grant authority and responsibility for coordinating technology accessibility efforts among communications and IT staff to an executive-level leader, says Jay Cooper, content strategist for Campus Suite, a CMS provider for schools and colleges that has created an online website accessibility center.

“At colleges, there are hundreds of people responsible for posting content,” Cooper says. “If they’re not trained in how to create accessible content and they’re slapping stuff up on that website, you’re exposing the institution to an accessibility complaint.”

Additional best practices for social media and websites come from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines developed by World Wide Web Consortium and the federal government’s Rehabilitation Act social media standards, experts say.

Perhaps because of the large number of federal investigations into digital accessibility at colleges, Rowland says progress is being made, citing a longitudinal study WebAIM runs on higher education resources.

In 2016, when WebAIM ran automatic testing on 14 web pages from 62 large universities (including at least one from each U.S. state and territory) to search for common accessibility errors, about 78 percent of the pages had obvious problems. By 2018, that figure had decreased to about 68 percent for the same pages.

“Complaints and litigation, those are things that run through the higher education community like wildfire,” Rowland says. “All of this complaining is kind of starting to work.”