How to Ace Your Campus Accessibility Audit

March 30, 2023

There is a multitude of reasons for prioritizing digital accessibility on college campuses. Higher education institutions are required by law to provide accessible technology to students with disabilities, but ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began and online learning has become much more widespread, it has become clear that digital accessibility is beneficial to everyone. Launching a campus accessibility initiative may seem daunting, but it is completely possible, necessary, and ultimately rewarding to do so.

Why is accessibility so important?

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), one in five children and adults struggle with a learning or attention issue. Additionally, recent statistics reveal that 19% of undergraduate and 12% of grad students have disabilities and may face additional barriers to accessing higher education. American students with disabilities (SWDs) are less likely to attend college and less likely to graduate when they do. Due to the difficulties living with a disability can impose on accessing higher education, many individuals with disabilities require accessibility accommodations. 

Per civil rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, colleges and universities in the United States are legally required to provide accessible alternatives to individuals with disabilities. In an ever-evolving technological landscape, digital accessibility is an increasingly urgent matter for higher education institutions. A lack of compliance with the ADA can result in fines, lawsuits, and backlash for post-secondary institutions. Therefore, implementing and improving accessibility should be a priority for institutions of higher education.

Complying with ADA law and supporting accessibility measures on campus is not just important to avoid legal issues, but also is beneficial for students, faculty, and staff alike. Having access to digital content that meets accessibility standards improves the educational experience for college students with disabilities. Confronting and resolving accessibility issues protects higher education institutions from legal liability and improves student and faculty experience, attrition, and retention.

A campus accessibility audit can guide institutions in refining their accessibility practices and provide a better experience for all.

Who requires and sets accessibility standards?

Federal Law: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

ADA is a civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination and guarantees equal opportunity for people with disabilities in all areas of life. ADA compliance is overseen and enforced by the United States Department of Justice. 

As the ADA requires colleges and universities to provide equal access to learners with disabilities using reasonable accommodations. Reasonable accommodations are modifications to tasks, environments, or systems within an institution to accommodate people with disabilities. This is not preferential treatment. Rather, the implementation of reasonable accommodations provides people with disabilities a fair and equal opportunity to participate fully. Universal design, assistive technology, and accessible web optimizations are all examples of reasonable accommodations that institutions can make for people with disabilities. 

Complying with ADA law is a must and institutions that do not do so may be subject to legal consequences.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

It is imperative that post-secondary institutions are compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as issued by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This set of guidelines is widely accepted and is fully compliant with federal accessibility law. It is worth noting that the WCAG is not a law or regulation. Rather, it is a set of strong guidelines providing information on how to make a website accessible. The ADA uses the WCAG as a guide to determine whether a website is ADA-compliant, making it a useful resource for institutions trying to improve website accessibility and avoid legal ramifications.

The full list of guidelines is long and can be quite technical. Thus, it is worth consulting technology experts for more information to ensure your institution’s website is fully accessible. Here are some common issues with web accessibility features that you can easily check for yourself:

  • Alt Text for Images: Alternative text is a concise description included with images on a website. The inclusion of alt text primarily benefits visually-impaired individuals who use screen readers to navigate the internet, allowing them a greater understanding of online content.
  • Link Text: Link text refers to the anchor text on a link that allows a user to navigate to new pages and other content. Link text should be unique, specific, understandable without context, and easy to speak aloud. 
  • Form Labels: Label text on fillable online forms should be clear and specific. This benefits screen reader users and individuals with cognitive, learning, and language disabilities.
  • Keyboard Navigability: Websites should be able to be navigated without the use of a mouse or trackpad. 
  • Captions: All audio and video content should be captioned. This primarily benefits those with auditory impairments.
  • Headers, Lists, and Tables: Web pages should be clean, well-organized, and optimized for readability. 
  • No Flashing Graphics: Websites should not include any flashing graphics or strobe effects, as they may put some at risk of experiencing seizures. 
  • Use of Color: There should be a high level of contrast between text and background colors. As well, information should not be conveyed using solely color cues. Links should include an underline or some other visual indication that it is a link other than its color.

Remember that while accessible online content is obviously beneficial to those with disabilities, following these guidelines actually improves the overall experience for all users.

State Regulations

Some states have specific guidance on what accessibility standards need to be met. Institutions must comply with these standards to receive state funding. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits college or university which receives state funding from discriminating against students with disabilities and requires that these schools provide equal and integrated access to higher ed. 

Non-compliance with the ADA and Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 isn’t only costly in legal fees, but can also result in a loss of funding from the state. Familiarize yourself with your specific state’s guidelines. 

Individual School Policies

Each school is responsible for setting its own accessibility guidelines that minimize legal risk and comply with accessibility legislation, such as the ADA. There are a number of strategies schools can use to design and implement accessibility strategies.

  • Conduct an audit. Many schools conduct an audit as a way to receive valuable insight as to what they need to focus on as they develop their school accessibility policies. Audits are completely comprehensive, exploring the school’s policy and action plan on accessibility, the usability of its website and other online content, its learning management systems (LMS) and other school-specific software, its school library, and more. 
  • Hire an expert consultant. Complete accessibility overhauls take time, energy, and expertise. It is imperative to bring on team members who know how to help you ace your campus accessibility. Consider electronic and information technology (EIT) specialists to help you fully optimize your website code and functionality so that it meets ADA standards. Invest in the process. 
  • Invest resources into a disability services office. Students with disabilities need guidance from faculty and staff to access accommodations. Furthermore, accessibility should be a priority, and the use of a disability services office can ensure that all criteria and regulations are met.
  • Be prudent. Non-compliance can be costly. Cover all the institution’s bases and seek constant feedback from experts, students, faculty, staff, and auditors.

What can happen if schools don’t focus on accessibility?


Higher education institutions can incur hefty fines for not being compliant with laws regarding accessibility. For the first violation of the ADA, institutions may be fined $55,000 – $75,000. For the second violation, that number goes up to $105,000. Fines are typically issued by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. Clearly, it is important to keep up to date with accessibility requirements. 


Failure to comply with the ADA and other accessibility legislation can also result in lawsuits. Lawsuits of this kind are extremely common and difficult for an educational institution to win. One such lawsuit was directed at Pennsylvania State University by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), an advocacy group for individuals with visual impairments, in 2010. The NFB claimed that Penn State did not fulfill its legal obligations in accordance with the ADA, thus perpetuating discrimination against students with visual impairments by not meeting the students’ accessibility needs. 

The NFB and Penn State wound up entering into a voluntary resolution agreement in 2011 that would become one of the most historically comprehensive documents on digital accessibility in post-secondary institutions to date. The agreement required Penn State to adhere to strict accessibility requirements and implement necessary changes, including optimizing its website for accessibility, developing accessibility policies and procedures, developing and conducting training at all levels, maintaining web resources, updating the university library website to be accessible, and much more within a set timeline. 

There have been many other lawsuits that have dealt with digital accessibility. Jason Camacho, a student with a visual impairment from New York, famously sued over 50 post-secondary institutions after attending a career fair and finding that most of the post-secondary institutions’ websites were inaccessible, as they were incompatible with his screen reader, causing a barrier to him receiving information and applying. Many institutions opted to settle. 

Lawsuits for digital accessibility can affect any institution, whether it be a community college or a large research university including Harvard University, the University of Phoenix, Florida State University, and even edX Inc., an organization that provides free online courses. There are too many institutions that have faced lawsuits to list.

There is plenty of information an educational institution can stand to learn from reviewing these lawsuits. Many lawsuits wind up in an agreement between parties to adhere to certain accommodation rules. As these accommodation rules are ADA-compliant, this can be a great reference point for other institutions to model their own accessibility standards. Observe what changes had to be made and why, and what timeline the changes had to be implemented by. Look into how those institutions approached solving the problem, what methods they used, and what professionals they consulted. This process can provide great insight.

Student attrition

Whether a post-secondary institution’s digital accessibility is a high priority has a huge impact on student satisfaction. Only half of the students with disabilities who access learning accommodations rated their school’s understanding of their needs positively, indicating that this is an area that needs improvement for the majority of institutions. Students can develop negative attitudes towards their institutions and may be vocal about their experiences by filing formal complaints and speaking about their experiences publicly if their access needs are not met. 

Students with disabilities may be severely limited or even unable to complete their education when their accessibility needs aren’t met. 

Faculty attrition

Students are not the only members of the campus community who requires digital accessibility and awareness. Faculty hold many misconceptions about accessibility, universal design for learning (UDL), and students with disabilities. UDL is a method of teaching which takes different learning styles and takes into account and provides equal opportunities for students. Implementing UDL methods within a post-secondary environment makes courses and learning more accessible for students of all backgrounds and abilities.

Unfortunately, of the total, 42% of faculty members say they do not understand UDL, and only 19.8% of faculty members report designing courses and lesson plans with UDL in mind. Many faculty members do not fully understand accessibility and hold negative misconceptions about providing accommodations to students with disabilities. It is clear from the data that faculty members would benefit from receiving additional training opportunities in order to better understand the issues at hand.

Online learning has provided an additional challenge for faculty members, especially since the pandemic began. Now faculty are expected to be flexible and be able to provide course content online in addition to in person. This poses additional challenges, as in accordance with the ADA, faculty are required to provide reasonable accommodations to students, which may require a greater understanding of technology, accessibility, and different learning formats. Again, this is a prime opportunity to prioritize faculty training and ensure that all levels of the educational institution are working in full compliance with the ADA.

Finally, faculty members with disabilities themselves are also in need of accessible digital content and services. Lack of compliance with the ADA may deter faculty members with disabilities from being able to reasonably do their jobs. All people with disabilities are entitled to accessibility accommodations, including faculty. 

Tips for making higher education accessible

Follow best practices for WCAG

Consult technology accessibility experts to ensure your website and all digital resources meet the standard set by the WCAG. Some common errors include a lack of alt text, poor mobile functionality, lack of captions and subtitles, and poor or nonexistent keyboard shortcuts. Remember that webpages must be accessible by all, regardless of disability. 

It is also important that digital course content, textbooks, and all educational materials be available in various accessible formats. Course materials should be available in text and audio format when applicable. For example, written resources should be available in EPUB, PDF, and DAISY format. 

Create an accessible technology training program

Members of the campus community on all levels could benefit from accessible technology training. Training would provide faculty members with the knowledge and skills to create an accessible course experience from the very beginning, thus bypassing the need for students to work so tediously with the school disability services office and avoiding the delay between starting a course and actually receiving the required course accommodations. 

Students would also benefit from being able to access training on accessibility. Training could help students understand their rights and decrease stigma and isolation. It can be difficult for students to understand the due process when it comes to their own educational accessibility. Training would take the air of mystery out of the accessibility conversation and empower students to access services immediately, in turn, increasing their satisfaction with their education and the institution and improving retention. 

Perform a technology accessibility audit

Don’t wait until your institution finds itself in an ADA-related lawsuit to take action on disability accessibility issues. Performing a technology accessibility audit, often by hiring a third-party auditor, can identify any areas of weakness to improve upon. In the meantime, here are some basic accessibility markers you should hit.

  • Have an accessibility statement readily available on your website and all course syllabi. Put out a clear, specific, actionable accessibility statement and action plan on your website as well as a shorter statement and instructions for accessing course accommodations on any given course syllabus with every course offered.
  • Have a disability services office and full-time staff members in charge of accessibility. Students, faculty, and staff need a go-to person or office on campus to consult on accessibility issues. Your institution should have an office dedicated to providing support to students with disabilities and continually reassessing and improving accessibility on campus. Institutions should also consult IT experts on their websites and digital resources to ensure that all WCAG guidelines are met. 
  • Implement a remediation strategy for inaccessible online content, including websites, digital resources, and LMS. Technology accessibility overhaul doesn’t happen in a day. Some larger institutions have thousands of online pages and other content to update. It will be prudent to prioritize based on traffic, frequency of use, and information provided. Look into previous major lawsuits involving ADA infractions on the part of similar educational institutions and learn from the findings. Delegate tasks and rework the school’s accessibility strategy over time.
  • Prioritize clear accessibility goals in the procurement process. Implement a clear set of guidelines to follow, consult experts as well as the campus community, and be open to testing products and services.
  • Consult with members of the community. Open the line of communication between the institution and students with disabilities. Facilitate conversation and seek feedback on accessibility changes the institution is looking to make. Take into account learners’ needs and suggestions.

Avoid overly complex technologies 

Some of the most common barriers that prevent learners from accessing accommodations to the fullest extent possible are the complex and convoluted systems and technologies they must navigate in order to be accommodated in the first place. Often when a student consults a professor about receiving learning accommodations for a disability, they are referred straight to their disability services office, which may require extensive documentation to grant accommodations, cumbersome meetings in person or online, and a significant waiting period, among other things. 

This can be frustrating and difficult for a student to navigate. Per ADA rules, learners with disabilities must be granted equal access, and although the use of accessible technologies and learning materials may facilitate that, added complexity within the system may hinder it. 

Improving campus and course accessibility helps students with disabilities from the outset without any waiting period. Requiring educators to provide course materials in various formats from the first day of class without prompting is beneficial to everyone and can help several learners with different types of disabilities all at once. Having an accessible institution website allows current and prospective students to access school information and resources with ease. 

It is imperative that faculty and staff be aware and educated on what constitutes a safe and accessible classroom for learners with disabilities and how to make accessible educational material and resources available to students from the first day all the way to the end of finals. Make things as simple as possible. Provide training and readily available information and resources to all members of the campus community. Accessibility and usability do not have to be complicated.

Create a culture of continual improvement 

Ultimately, restructuring existing infrastructure to be accessible takes time. An accessibility audit may provide insight into an institution’s weak points and make recommendations of what to change going forward, but the most important thing is that remediation is approached with an open mind and a culture of continual improvement from all involved parties. 

Increasing accessibility for your institution is a worthwhile but long process that ultimately has the potential to shield the institution from legal liability and greatly benefit everyone on campus. It is worth the long-term commitment to invest in campus accessibility and see your campus transformed.

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