Federal civil rights investigation into University of Illinois web accessibility launched

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A copy of the notification of a civil rights investigation launched by the Department of Education sent to Chancellor Robert Jones.

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Physical accessibility issues persist at University of Illinois 27 years after ADA

Despite reputation, University of Illinois struggles with web accessibility

The University of Illinois is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights because many university web pages are allegedly inaccessible to those with disabilities, according to an official notification sent to Chancellor Robert Jones in April.

The investigation is based off of a complaint that alleges the university’s homepage, admissions page, financial aid page, disability resources pages, among other pages, are not accessible to those with certain disabilities, including vision impairments, physical impairments or print disabilities like dyslexia.

It’s unclear who filed the complaint, which was obtained by CU-CitizenAccess through a Freedom of Information request, or what specifically was inaccessible about the web pages it listed.

Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess

Tim Offenstein, lead information design specialist and campus accessibility liaison at the University of Illinois, shows a page he is checking for accessibility in his office at the Digital Computing Lab in Urbana on May 16, 2017.

This is the first official complaint the University has received concerning web accessibility, said Tim Offenstein, an adjunct faculty member and an administrator within Technology Services that focuses on accessibility.

Offenstein said that he has been informed by an official of the university’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Access, which is leading the response to the complaint, that the complaint comes from an individual advocate who has filed more than 900 complaints against various institutions.

While the university is still working with the Office for Civil Rights to determine the exact basis for the complaint, Offenstein said that the university has performed its own evaluations for each of the websites named in the complaint and has not found any issues that he would call “show stoppers.”

Instead, he would categorize the errors that were detected as “inconveniences.”

“It’s not necessarily going to stop you from being able to perform any kind of interaction that’s required or gain the information that you need from that site,” he said.

Offenstein said that what the Office for Civil Rights is “dinging” the university for is not meeting regulations.

“That being said, because this is an official complaint filed by the Office for Civil Rights, we have to sit up and take notice,” he said. “Because whenever a complaint like that is filed … what the original complaint is can be less significant than the fact that there is a complaint [to begin with].”

“Of all the sites on campus, they probably picked the ones that were in the best shape,” he said. “But this opens the door for them to say, ‘Well, maybe we need to look at other pages.’ And so our concern is then that they begin kind of a witch hunt or a closer examination and they find things that are not as compliant.”

Many schools face web accessibility investigations

The University of Illinois is far from alone in facing investigations concerning web accessibility.

Lawsuits brought against institutions of higher education have been especially consequential.

Miami University in Ohio overhauled its accessibility policies as part of a U.S. Department of Justice consent decree settlement with student Aleeha Dudley, who is blind and sued the school over a lack of accessible course materials and trained assistants.

Another high-profile web accessibility lawsuit against the University of California, Berkeley, had a very different outcome. Like many other universities, Berkeley offered free audio and video lectures on online platforms, like YouTube and iTunes U. An investigation determined that “significant portions” of the content was inaccessible to deaf and hearing-impaired individuals because it was not captioned, and the Justice Department subsequently concluded in August 2016 that the school was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Justice Department provided a list of action items to remedy the situation, including paying damages to students affected by the inaccessible content and ensuring that existing and future content would be brought up to standards, according to federal documents.

However, citing expenses and greater protection for intellectual property, the school opted instead to restrict access to the content. In total, more than 20,000 audio and video lectures were removed from public view, according to campus officials.

Contemplating Berkeley case

The Berkeley case was addressed as “the elephant in the room” at a meeting of information technology access specialists from within the Big Ten Academic Alliance at the University of Illinois in late March.

Hadi Rangin, a panelist from the University of Washington, told the group that he did not support the action Berkeley took.

“(We) definitely do not want to go the route that they have chosen. That is definitely what I would say is the wrong side of history,” he said. “We want to be more proactive.”

Bill Welsh, director of disability services at Rutgers University, said that he got many confused and concerned calls from across the university after Berkeley announced its action.

“You know, ‘What do we do? Do we need to hide all of our stuff?’” he said. “‘And doesn’t this go against what we’ve actually been trying to do at the university with accessibility?’”

A common theme at the meeting was the importance of securing buy-in on web accessibility from partners across campus.

“It’s always everyone points back to disability services (and says), ‘Well, that’s your responsibility,’” Welsh said.

Welsh, who previously served as the director of disability services at Penn State University, said he was fortunate to see true culture change in terms of web accessibility at Penn State. Welsh said his best advice to the rest of the BTAA group was to “spread the wealth” and get administrators on board.

“Once that happens, the culture change really starts and you in disability services don’t have to be fully responsible for that. You in IT don’t have to be fully responsible for that. It’s a shared responsibility,” he said.

Offenstein said he hopes this complaint and subsequent investigation will bring about similar results at Illinois.

Establishing standards

He and a colleague from Technology Services, Keith Hays, both members of the Chancellor’s Committee on Access and Accommodations, have been working for more than two years on a policy that would establish baseline standards, training programs and metrics for success regarding web accessibility.

“I think the OCR complaint has stepped up the pressure a little bit,” Offenstein said. Offenstein and Hays said last month they were meeting with the Office of the Chief Information Officer and were hoping to later get an audience with and buy-in from the interim provost in order to assemble a team to manage the implementation of the policy.

Offenstein said that in an internal evaluation of IT accessibility of various Big Ten university websites, the University of Illinois “did not come in very well.”

In a list of the 14 Big Ten university websites that he and Hays looked at, the University of Illinois was in the bottom four as far as having a policy, enforcing it and having training programs and metrics standards in place.

“We’re lagging way behind,” he said. “And as a result, we have developers on campus where they don’t have time for accessibility because their administration is not pushing it. And so accessibility falls by the wayside.”

Offenstein said there is definitely a desire on campus as far as building web accessible sites, but often the obstacle is a lack of education about web accessibility.

“Oftentimes, the web developers and backend programmers all want to make a website that’s accessible. They’re not being obstinate about it,” he said. “It’s just a matter of not knowing what’s involved in order to do that.”

Offenstein said another challenging factor is the perception that an accessible website has to be ugly or dull.

“Just the opposite is the case,” he said. “If you’ve got somebody who knows what they’re doing in terms of accessibility, they can produce amazingly beautiful websites.”

Offenstein says that this perception of electronic accessibility as an obstacle extends to research scientists at the university.

“Any time that you talk about accessibility to your research scientists, they get very paranoid,” he said. “They see accessibility as a limitation, as a governor or a hamper to being able to go out there and do crazy and wild things.”

But Offenstein said, “I believe accessibility is an opportunity for innovation.”

He said research has repeatedly shown that accessible features benefit far more than those with disabilities. For example, students who do not have any hearing impairments or disabilities often benefit and have greater retention rates of captioned videos than videos that are not captioned.

Offenstein said professors will often cite lack of time or resources as an excuse for showing non-captioned content in class. He said developing a system for professors to get material captioned in a timely manner and at a reasonable cost may take some creativity, but he believes it’s doable.

“If we can approach it from the concept that accessibility is an opportunity for innovation, I believe we can do amazing things,” he said.

But, overall, Offenstein said there’s a great deal of room for improvement.

“As a campus and as a university, we could do a lot, lot better,” he said. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be at the top, particularly with the legacy and the history that we have.”