The Current State of Affairs

The recent situation at the University of California-Berkeley regarding its online content that is inaccessible has sparked much discussion. As posted on the Georgia Tech Web Accessibility Group list, Janet Sylvia, Web Accessibility Group (WAG) Leader at AMAC,  states, “this is not a settlement agreement.”   Inside Higher Ed posted a response from the University stating it will cut off public access to tens of thousands of video lectures and podcasts in response to a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) order to make the educational content accessible to people with disabilities.   On March 15, the University will begin removing the more than 20,000 audio and video files from public access; only users with UC credentials will be allowed to sign in.

The Department of Justice, following an investigation in August, determined that the university was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The department reached that conclusion after receiving complaints from two employees of Gallaudet University, saying Berkeley’s free online educational content was inaccessible to blind and deaf people because of a lack of captions, screen reader compatibility and other issues.

Initially, the University stated that financial constraints caused them to focus first on their obligation to support enrolled students. Their initial decision to remove content from public access prompted a number of comments from individuals within the disability community. A recent blog post by Cielo24 stated that content that is 3-10 years old will have restricted access and will be replaced with newly accessible content that meets accessibility requirements which have been in place since 1990.  No timeline has been set for when new, accessible content will be made publicly available.

While UC Berkeley claimed that the expense to retrofit is too great, the DOJ pointed out that there is ample infrastructure at UC Berkeley to support faculty in creating accessible online material. In the investigation letter, the DOJ wrote, “There are policies, tools, resources, and delivery mechanisms all in place to enable accessibility for online courses, but what missing is UC Berkeley’s consistent application of its own resources and policies to ensure compliance with accessibility standards.”

WebAIM added to the discussion with the following “Berkeley failed to caption (strike one), failed to remedy that failure (strike two), and ultimately chose universal inaccessibility (strike three). Sadly, they missed an opportunity to deepen their disability commitment, as well as their leadership role in higher education.”

AHEAD President Jamie Axelrod issued a statement regarding Berkeley’s decision to make on-line recorded classes available only to registered students, so that it may caption on a “case-by-case” basis to identified enrolled students with disabilities. Here is an excerpt from the statement:

While this approach may allow the University to comply with the letter of the law, in AHEAD’s experience, this will not prove to be an effective approach to providing timely and equally effective access to critical communications.  In higher education, adoption of “universal design” policies and practices is the overwhelming trend in structured negotiation agreements, settlements, and court decisions concerning digital equality.   These decisions and agreements reflect considerable disappointment with ad hoc or “only when requested” accommodations and recognize the speed at which communications occur in the modern curriculum.  This limited approach may sound sufficient to achieve compliance, but in practice it is likely to be unreliable, inefficient, and unnecessarily expensive. When processes are in place which allow all video resources to contain captions when first posted, nothing has to be taken down or remediated after the fact, to comply with disability law.

AHEAD recommends that the University works collaboratively with the disability community and digital access experts to find a better approach.  Moreover, AHEAD stands prepared to point the University in the direction of the cost-savings and enhanced access for all students entailed in universal design, to identify for it some of the most efficient and effective universal approaches to communication access, as well as the best-qualified experts.  Nothing compels the University to choose between sharing its intellectual resources with people regardless of their means and sharing its resources with individuals who are deaf or blind.  Better, well-known, paths to access, worthy of the University, exist and should be adopted. “

In a recent post to the WAG listserv at Georgia Tech, Janet Sylvia, WAG group leader notes that it is interesting that UC Berkeley decided to remove public access to YouTube and iTunesU content, while making accessible public Massive Open Online Courses (“MOOC”) content. According to the U.C. Berkeley statement via Inside Higher Ed: “The university will continue to offer massive open online courses on edX and said it plans to create new public content that is accessible to listeners or viewers with disabilities.”

The Inside Higher Ed post also notes that the DOJ did not look at how Berkeley serves students with disabilities, only the accessibility of the content offered to the public.

And as Janet Sylvia aptly states, “accessibility should be baked-in from the start; retrofitting is a costly endeavor.”


About Alice Wershing

I joined the Disability Services office at the Hardin Valley Campus as the Technology Specialist in November, 2013. I have an Assistive Technology Practitioner (ATP) credential from the Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America, a Master’s degree in Severe Disabilities, and a license to teach grades K-8 and Special Education. I worked for the East Tennessee Technology Access Center (ETTAC) for 19 years as the Educational Technology Coordinator.

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