eLearning evangelist and OCR expert Raymond Rose provides clarification about the impact of the recent Section 508 Refresh on higher education in an interview with Eric Nambo, Accessibility Advocate, Chemeketa Community College. 

Introduction

The Office of Civil Rights is knocking on your (virtual) classroom door. Are you in compliance? As of January 2017, new laws have come in effect for the Rehabilitation Act. But what does that mean for your online classroom? How does this impact accessibility initiatives at your campus? To answer these questions, I’ve reached out to my colleague and eLearning evangelist Raymond Rose. Through a series of emails, we’ve managed to clear up some misconceptions to help keep accessibility at your institution on track.

Q & A

Eric: “Hey, Raymond! Thanks for the time out of your schedule to help me write this post! Earlier this month I sent you an email asking for some “help unpacking some of the higher level” details on the recent Section 508 Refresh. Your email back was eye opening, but I wanted to take this opportunity to expand on some points you made with some clarifying questions.”

Background about Raymond

Eric: “Before we get down to the brass tacks… I’m fortunate to have known you for a couple of years now, but can you tell our readers some more about yourself and your background?”

Raymond: “Early in my career, I was a civil rights specialist with the Mass [Massachusetts] Department of Education. I’d actually been on a community group before that, helping draft regulations for the state’s educational equity law, Mass Chapter 622.  There I did technical assistance and a lot of professional development workshops on educational equity for K-12 schools. I also created the state’s 622 Compliance Monitoring Process and participated in a variety of compliance monitoring. After that, I was on staff for the desegregation center serving New England and became Associate Director for that project. As a result, civil rights has been something that I bring to every position. I was part of the team that created the country’s first virtual high school a couple of decades back, and I wrote that program’s Special Needs policy since we were serving students with disabilities. In 2007, as part of the NACOL (now iNACOL) Research Group, I wrote a publication about access and equity in online learning because we could see problems developing. But the field wasn’t interested. In 2014 at the urging of folks in iNACOL I did a revision of that publication and have been tracking compliance efforts at all levels of education since. I’m currently the public policy chair for TxDLA [Texas Distance Learning Association] and have been advocating access within TxDLA for a number of years, and was part of the team that designed the TxDLA Online Accessibility Certificate program.”

Comparing 508 and 504

Eric: “To set up some context; WebAIM’s article on US Laws describes the relationship between 508 and 504 as‘…Section 504 provides the context of the law [Rehabilitation Act of 1973] and Section 508 provides the direction.’ Can you break down what this means for college committees that are planning accessibility strategies?”

Raymond: “First, you’ve got to understand who is covered by each piece of legislation. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to all education institutions (K-12 and higher ed) that receive Federal Funds from the U.S. Department of Education. It states:“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . . .”Section 508 requires Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology.
Technically Section 508 does not apply to higher ed, but 508 does have standards for what they expect and mean by accessible. 504, being considerably older does not have standards for access in online learning.”

Policy Planning Pitfalls and Distractions

Eric: “With the role and scopes defined, a statement in our correspondence peaked my interest-‘While the refresh might be getting higher ed attention, most of those folks have been, erroneously, looking at are not part of 508 now or in the future.’ What aspects around the refresh have people been ‘erroneously looking at,’ and what should institutions be focusing on instead?”

Raymond:Section 508 refresh has a year implementation timeline, so higher ed folks are saying well, we’ve got a year. First, technically Section 508 doesn’t cover them. But the refresh does specify more clearly the standards — WCAG 2.0 AA. But, if they’d been paying attention to Section 504 and ADA enforcement actions by the US Dept of Justice and ED’s Office for Civil Rights, they have been using WCAG 2.0 AA as their standard for the past 10 years. Ask the higher education institutions that have signed consent decrees with those agencies.  There have been no challenges to those actions and by default WCAG 2.0 AA has been the operational standard for measuring accessibility for the past 10 years. Folks don’t have another year to get into compliance, if they’re not there today they are approximately 10 years late and just lucky they haven’t been sued or had a visit from the Office for Civil Rights.”

The Sense of Urgency

Eric: “Raymond, I’m going share a quote from you, then ask you to get on your soap box for a moment.‘504 and ADA are in play today. Talk refresh and folks think they have time. They don’t.’ For the folks that are still unclear what legislation to rally and plan around, can you drive home your message here?”

Raymond: “Section 504 and ADA are not new laws, they’ve been around for decades.The enforcement actions for online learning are well known to anyone that cares to look. My iNACOL publication, though written for K-12 is accurate for higher ed. There is no difference to OCR’s enforcement in K-12 and higher ed. And, I find that well over half the educational institutions I work with have not met the basic requirements of Section 504 or ADA. By the way, Title II of the ADA applies to educational institutions and in particular their websites.”

Conclusion

Eric: “Before wrapping this up, are there any parting thoughts or tips you’d like to share?”

Raymond: “Start today.There are things that educational institutions can do today be more in compliance. The most commonly cited accessibility problems are some of the easiest to fix. Get started today. Do not create a new online course that does not meet accessibility standards. Get folks training in accessibility. And, there’s more to this than just getting the course designers knowledgeable, but that’s another much longer discussion. Maybe [this interview] is enough for you to run with. Hope if you’re getting paid to write this, you’re going to share. And be sure to put my contact info there.”

Closing Comments

Eric: “I’m on the clock and will be sharing this with a creative commons license! Thanks again for your time and expertise Raymond. It’s always a treat to have in-depth legal commentary from a seasoned expert. If would like to stay up to date with more insight from Raymond Rose, of Rose & Smith Associates, check out his blog, rmrose.blogspot.com. He has also graciously provided his email and phone; ray@rose-smith.com, 512.791.3100. 

Be sure to check out the rest of the OCCDLA’s blog posting and of course, thank you, readers. I hope you have found this interview useful in your pursuit of fostering an accessible education experience for people of all abilities. At the end of the day, it’s more than compliance. It’s compassion. 

Did a question you have not get answered in this interview? For questions, comments, and/ or concerns, email the author at eric.nambo@chemeketa.edu.

Author Bio: Eric Nambo has championed accessibility in higher education from the start of his career. His experience includes fostering the culture of accessibility, contributing to organizational strategy, studying assistive technologies, researching and implementing best practices for web accessibility, and collaborating with instructors, both institutional and statewide, to create an online learning experience to serve students of all abilities. Hailing from the Lone Star State, he is a graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University, located in Nacogdoches, Texas.

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Hot Take: Raymond Rose on 508 Refresh by Eric Nambo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.