By Jessica Schein, guest blogger. Jessica Schein is a Ph.D student at Michigan State University. This post originally appeared on her blog, DISABILITYINHIGHERED. Contact Jessica at scheinje@msu.edu. Since World War II, higher education in the United States has evolved from serving the social elite to serving students from all walks of life. One motivation behind massification of access to higher education is the widespread belief in the power of education to serve as a mechanism for economic and social mobility. That historical belief continues today as the Obama administration has recently identified completion of college as a key mechanism for reducing inequality. Students in a classroom settingDespite public faith in the value of higher education, the process of massification has not been without its critics and progress has been slow and imbalanced. It took the civil rights movement of the 1960s to spur significant admissions of racial and ethnic minorities. Further, despite significant investments, low-income students are still less likely to attend college than middle- and upper-middle class white students. In addition to the ever-present access discrepancies, large gaps in completion rates remain between various groups of students symbolizing an opportunity gap. Currently, there is a large opportunity gap when comparing the general student population to students with disabilities. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that in the 2011-12 academic year, 11% of undergraduate students reported having a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. This above statistic does not include students with mental health concerns which if included, would make this percentage notably higher. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 paved the way for students with disabilities to gain access to higher education. Before these foundational pieces of legislation, higher education was largely inaccessible to Americans with disabilities. Pre-1970, many buildings lacked ramps and elevators, crosswalks were not safe for those with visual impairments, bathrooms were inaccessible to wheelchair users, and many classrooms were not welcoming to students with disabilities. Since then, much has changed. Students with disabilities now account for over one tenth of the general undergraduate student population in the US. That figure truly marks progress from the numbers predating the Rehabilitation Act. However, while 58% of students without disabilities graduate with a bachelor’s degree, of college students with disabilities, only 21-34% will do the same (Florida College System, 2009; Newman et al., 2009). This statistic is alarming. A graduation rate of less than 35% is seen in very few groups of students who account for as large of a percentage of the general student population. The bachelor’s degree completion rate for Hispanic students, who account for a similar sized group of students on college campuses, is over 50%. The above mentioned laws protect the rights of students with disabilities. According to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act,

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…

What is the practical meaning of Section 504? Colleges and universities receiving Federal financial aid must provide accommodation for students with disabilities. They must give students with disabilities the same opportunities to learn, be tested, and succeed as they provide to students without disabilities. These things are clear. However, because information technology had not yet attained the prevalence that it now has throughout society when these laws were passed, when it comes to dealing with accessibility of the digital content of education, there is no Federal standard for accessibility or accommodation to guide universities. It is common practice in higher education for faculty members to create their own online educational content. However, very few faculty members take accessibility into consideration when creating such educational tools. In fact, there is no Federal standard for the acceptable level of digital content accessibility which leaves faculty members ever unsure about how to teach accessibly. Creating accessible documents, videos, and media for both online and in-person courses takes technical training for content creators that was non-existent before recent years and that training takes time. Time away from research and time away from teaching is time that is not often voluntarily spent. On the topic of time, according to instructors, one of the largest barriers to student success is the barrier of time. For a student with a disability to receive their government mandated accommodation, they are expected to have registered their disability with their university’s office for disability services, they then receive a form to verify their accommodation, they present that form to the faculty member, and then they receive accommodation—assuming the accommodation is already prepared. An example of the process from the perspective of a Michigan State University student is illustrated in the video below. However, most of the time, when the faculty member is presented with the request for accommodation, they then begin the process of making the digital course content accessible. An example of this process from the perspective of a faculty member at MSU is depicted in the video below. According to communications with students with disabilities on several campuses, the process for receiving accommodation can take anywhere from the timeline presented in the above videos to weeks. That is time that a student with a disability seeking accommodation must wait to then begin their educational experience alongside their peers. Although these students have gained access to accommodation, the accommodation may be contributing to the gap in these students’ success. Many colleges and universities are creating policies that encourage faculty to proactively create accessible digital content. However, the effectiveness of the implementation of these policies has been low as these policies are fairly general and not enforced. Moreover, implementing policies takes a significant amount of faculty time and the changes are rarely backed by any formal mandate or have negative repercussions. Internationally, many countries have adopted WCAG 2.0 as the national standard for digital accessibility and enforce such standards. WCAG, or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, was developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main international standards organization for the Internet. These guidelines specify how to make content accessible for both users with disability as well as all other users. The United States has neither adopted nor developed such standard. It was rumored that the United States would have adopted standards for non-government content in 2013. The Department of Justice released an advance notice to proposed rulemaking on this topic in 2010. However, over 25 years after the passing of the ADA, we are still waiting on the Federal government to mandate the accessibility of digital content. Many disability advocates in higher education believe that a Federal mandate is the only way to effectively catalyze the universal faculty adoption of inherently accessible digital education. Most campus efforts have lacked teeth as well as the financial and political support to facilitate any large scale implementation. As long as the barrier of inaccessible digital content exists for students with disabilities on college campuses, the barrier for economic and social mobility will also exist for this group of Americans. However, in the absence of such a mandate, we can commit to progress towards increasing accessibility and providing opportunity for students with disabilities on our own campuses while we wait.

When the ADA was enacted in 1990, the Internet as we know it today—the ubiquitous infrastructure for information and commerce—did not exist. Today the Internet, most notably the sites of the Web, plays a critical role in the daily personal, professional, civic, and business life of Americans…Being unable to access Web sites puts individuals at a great disadvantage in today’s society, which is driven by a dynamic electronic marketplace and unprecedented access to information… For individuals with disabilities who experience barriers to their ability to travel or to leave their homes, the Internet may be their only way to access certain goods and services. Beyond goods and services, information available on the Internet has become a gateway to education. Schools at all levels are increasingly offering programs and classroom instruction through Web sites. Many colleges and universities offer degree programs online; some universities exist exclusively on the Internet…The ADA’s promise to provide an equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities to participate in and benefit from all aspects of American civic and economic life will be achieved in today’s technologically advanced society only if it is clear to State and local governments, businesses, educators, and other public accommodations that their Web sites must be.

–US Department of Justice, Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking 2010