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University seeks to avoid citation for website compliance

By web

Section: News

October 28, 2011

After an open letter from the federal Department of Education reminding university presidents about legal obligations to students and potential students with disabilities, Provost Steve Goldstein announced the creation of a university committee to determine Brandeis’ compliance with federal regulations pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The relevant portions of the Department of Education’s rules implementing the Act concern Brandeis websites and new technologies—tools which are not inherently accessible to those who may be blind or suffer to other degrees of visual impairment.

Dean of Academic Services Kim Godsoe will lead the effort and said that while “years ago a school would provide a person to read to someone who is legally blind, new technology provides that there is a way that online text can go straight to speech.”

She also said that “all university websites, including learning environments like LATTE and SAGE, must be able to be used by electronic readers so that someone who is visually impaired can access the material independently.”

The letter from the government called it “unacceptable” otherwise, “to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students.”

Schools found not to be in compliance with the Department of Education’s own office for civil rights guidelines, and cited for possible ADA infractions, may find themselves under the attention of the more famous Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice—which can of course bring charges for violating civil rights, as it famously does in voting or racial discrimination.

According to universitybusiness.com, schools have recently fallen under this microscope for using new technologies like Google application software, something Brandeis’ Library and Technology Services embraced the last year. The Justice Department has reached settlements with Florida State University, New York University and Northwestern.

Pennsylvania State University was even charged for violations of unfair access and inaccessibility of the website of their Office of Disabilities Services.

Legally speaking, universities must provide all “reasonable accommodation,” according to the Act and court rulings, to modify existing practices for those with disabilities.

Godsoe said that Brandeis will determine the current state of compliance in terms of websites that meet the regulations.

“We are still in the process of assessing what our websites are like,” she said but added that “I think we are smack dab in the middle, with a very typical level compared to other universities.” But she noted that 70 percent acceptable is very different from even 50 or just 30.

“This is not just about current students or to jump through regulation hoops,” Godsoe said. “This is about meeting our responsibilities—the rights—of our students: and that includes the very important issue of attracting prospective students.”

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