In a joint “Dear Colleague” letter (DCL) released May 19, 2023, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights teamed up with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to make the public aware of both Departments’ efforts to address barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating in online services, programs, and activities sponsored by colleges, universities, and other postsecondary institutions (“educational institutions”). The letter also summarizes the Departments’ enforcement activities, guidance they have posted, and it discusses upcoming proposed regulations for Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Educational institutions are increasingly relying on their websites and third-party online platforms to provide services, programs, and activities to students and members of the public. The DCL informs educational institutions that both Departments consider the online content housed on these platforms to be a service, program, or activity of the institution that must be accessible to students, and in some cases the public.
Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act require educational institutions to provide equal opportunities to people with disabilities in all their operations, including equal opportunities to participate in and benefit from online services, programs, and activities.
As the DCL notes, public and private educational institutions must take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with individuals with disabilities are just as effective as communications with others, including providing appropriate auxiliary aids and services. Public and private colleges, universities, and other postsecondary institutions must also make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, and procedures where necessary to avoid discriminating based on disability, and where necessary to afford access to their goods and services to individuals with disabilities.
In the past, federal executive agencies have used “Dear Colleague” letters to publicly state how they will interpret and enforce the federal laws over which they have jurisdiction. Although the policy interpretations expressed are not legally binding, they do describe how agencies will handle administrative complaints before them, and courts often view them as persuasive. The DCL describes the following enforcement actions that have recently taken place:
In the May 19 DCL, the Departments of Education and Justice also provided general, non-regulatory guidance and resources regarding website accessibility. The following resources offer some basic technical assistance for educational institutions on website accessibility for individuals with disabilities:
In addition, the DCL discussed two new federal rule-making initiatives:
Educational institutions will want to familiarize themselves with the guidance discussed in the DCL and work to ensure that the teams that develop and manage their online offerings are familiar with digital accessibility to ensure access for everyone.
WRITTEN BY: Littler