On November 21, 2022, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a proposed consent decree with the University of California (UC), Berkeley, addressing alleged violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
A consent decree is a legal agreement to resolve a dispute without the admission of guilt or liability.
UC Berkeley maintains an online library with thousands of hours of content that includes videos, podcasts, and free online courses. However, the Justice Department alleged that many of those materials weren’t accessible for people with disabilities — and under the Biden administration, the DOJ has stepped up enforcement of alleged ADA web accessibility violations.
“By entering into this consent decree, UC Berkeley will make its content accessible to the many people with disabilities who want to participate in and access the same online educational opportunities provided to people without disabilities,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a press release.
The Justice Department claimed that UC Berkeley’s online materials had numerous accessibility barriers
The DOJ cited missing alternative text, captions, and transcripts as major issues while also noting that some of the university’s content was “formatted in a way that does not allow individuals with disabilities to access the content using screen readers or other assistive technology.”
Importantly, the alleged violations are not restricted to UC Berkeley’s official website. The DOJ’s press release notes that the consent decree — which requires court approval — will apply to all of the institution’s content, regardless of where that content is hosted.
The three-and-a-half-year long agreement will apply to:
- All courses hosted on UC BerkeleyX, the university’s online learning platform.
- Video and podcast content, including media posted to YouTube, Apple Podcasts, and other third-party platforms.
- All UC Berkeley conferences, lectures, sporting events, and other events available to the public through the university’s website and other platforms.
UC Berkeley has also agreed to revise its policies, train personnel, designate a web accessibility coordinator, and hire independent auditors to evaluate the accessibility of its online content.
What does the UC Berkeley agreement mean for digital accessibility?
For people in the digital accessibility space, these allegations aren’t especially surprising. In July 2022, the DOJ announced plans to amend Title II with new website accessibility regulations, which will likely use the Level A/AA requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1 as a framework.
Those new regulations must go through a lengthy amendment process before becoming law. However, the Justice Department has regularly reiterated its opinion that the ADA applies to web content, and WCAG is widely accepted as an international standard for digital accessibility.
And while the ADA doesn’t currently include technical requirements, the DOJ has frequently compelled organizations to follow WCAG through consent decrees. The agreement with UC Berkeley shows that the Justice Department will continue to conduct investigations — and in some cases, file litigation — while pushing WCAG 2.1 as a national standard.
Colleges and universities must treat accessibility as a priority
For educational institutions, ADA compliance is absolutely essential. Many colleges and universities must follow both Title II (which applies to state and local governments) and Title III (which applies to the private sector) of the ADA. Both Titles require accessible digital content.
And while the Justice Department has recently increased web accessibility enforcement, educational institutions have been logical targets for ADA investigations for much longer. In 2013, the DOJ reached a settlement with Louisiana Tech University over allegedly inaccessible online learning materials; in 2016, Miami University reached an agreement to follow WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards.
The ADA also allows private individuals with disabilities to file lawsuits for alleged violations. In 2022, plaintiff Joseph Ortiz, who has a visual disability, filed separate lawsuits against Mercer University, Loyola University of Chicago, and Lafayette College, alleging that the colleges' websites were inaccessible with a screen reader.
Create more inclusive content by following WCAG
Of course, while ADA compliance is important, educators have other strong reasons to adopt a web accessibility strategy: About 26% of U.S. adults live with some form of disability.
When web content follows the best practices outlined in WCAG, universities can provide better educational experiences for a much larger number of students — and improve online experiences for all users.
If you’re building a web accessibility strategy for a college, university, or a private business, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help. Send us a message to connect with a subject matter expert.