Miami University in Ohio Promises to Correct Web Accessibility Problems in U.S. Department of Justice Consent Decree

The university has been involved in lawsuits over its lack of accessible online learning options.

by Mary Mogan Edwards, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio / October 18, 2016 0

(TNS) — Miami University has agreed to ensure that people with impaired vision and hearing can use its online course materials and learning-management systems, under terms of a consent decree filed Monday by the U.S. Department of Justice. In it, the university also agrees that it will meet regularly with students who have such disabilities to plan for their accommodations.

Miami promises that all web pages dating back to 2012 will comply with accessibility guidelines. And it will beef up a committee charged with making sure it buys education technology that is accessible to people with visual and hearing impairments. The university also will pay $25,000 in compensation, to be split among four people the government says were denied accommodation for their disabilities.

The Justice Department began investigating Miami's accommodations for visually- and hearing-impaired students in 2014, after then-student Aleeha Dudley sued the university for failing to provide her with the accommodations required under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Dudley, who is blind, said the university had promised to provide her with what she needed to major in zoology and apply to a veterinary school, but gave her textbooks that didn't work with her electronic screen reader and required her to turn in assignments using online platforms that aren't compatible with screen readers. The Justice Department intervened in the suit in May 2014.

Miami reached a separate settlement with Dudley in February. In it, the university promised to pay $108,000 toward tuition, books, room and board for Dudley to attend another university, plus about $102,000 for pain and suffering caused when she was unable to complete assignments because she had no access to materials. In some cases, she dealt with text that was out of order or garbled and devoid of images or graphics.

Disability Rights Ohio, which represented Dudley in her suit, said Miami caused problems for students like Dudley by not considering accessibility before choosing software and other materials. "It's not expensive to make technology accessible from the start," said Kerstin Sjoberg-Witt, director of advocacy for the group. "What causes the problem is when you're retro-fitting. If they don't make accessibility a priority, then these new barriers arise."

Miami contends that it was working to solve the problem before Dudley filed her lawsuit, but that choosing good products has been difficult because, even though the Justice Department said in 2010 that it planned to issue specific requirements for making websites accessible to the visual- and hearing-impaired, it has yet to do so.

Without standards set in law, relatively few software companies and book publishers offer suitable products, said Mitch McCrate, deputy general counsel for the university. "When we go out shopping for products, it has been a challenge," McCrate said. "It's not that we don't want to have accessible systems. A lot of times it just isn't available."

©2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.