Since the passage of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 corporations, schools and the federal government have taken steps to protect the rights of all Americans. Signing the bill reflected a seminal moment in United States history; policymakers recognized that they had to do more to prevent discrimination. The authors of the bill determined the purpose of ADA was, “to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.”
For nearly 40 years, public transportation, buildings and other areas have been redesigned to ensure that individuals with disabilities have every opportunity to succeed. Prior to 1990 buses, apartment buildings and other structures were built without considering the needs of individuals, creating consistent obstacles. Several years later, in 2009, Congress took further steps by amending the ADA to offer specific protections. Today, civil rights organizations and the courts have taken additional steps to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities.
Dr. Larry J. Walker
Recently, advocates have contended that post-secondary institutions websites do not comply with ADA. The lawsuits mirror a new fight to extend ADA protections beyond physical spaces. Several colleges and universities throughout the nation were sued because their websites are not user friendly for all groups. The increased litigation aimed at institutions is important because it will ensure that students, parents and advocates can easily access vital information. Notably, the post-secondary institutions facing lawsuits are frequently predominantly White institutions (PWIs). While some PWIs have settled lawsuits, a new round of legal challenges highlights the need for increased scrutiny by college administrators. For example, leaders at post-secondary institutions including Drexel University among others have to address ongoing litigation. How they solve this issue could be a template for other institutions with websites that are out of compliance.
Over the next few years schools that fail to address whether their websites and other tools are consistent with ADA guidelines will encounter additional challenges. This is important considering that HBCUs are traditionally underfunded. Far too often, HBCUs must overcome challenges because of physical facilities (i.e., boilers, buildings, etc.) but meeting ADA requirements represents a new issue. Thus far, HBCUs have avoided a litany of lawsuits. However, it is a matter of time before they are forced to ensure their websites are ADA compliant.
In contrast to other post-secondary institutions, HBCUs have a distinguished history providing opportunities for students from underserved communities. For years Black students from low and moderate-income backgrounds benefited from nurturing environments that embrace difference. For this reason, HBCUs must be proactive to avoid scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. While larger post-secondary institutions have the resources to combat lawsuits, HBCUs could incur costs and penalties that could have long financial implications. Additionally, for schools that have inaccessible websites, they are denying potential and current students with disabilities the opportunity to gather important information. Traditionally the fight for civil rights has always been important to HBCUs. Throughout Jim Crow, administrators and students fought for equal treatment. This trend must continue.
Ensuring HBCUs and other minority serving institutions (MSIs) are meeting ADA regulations is critical. Both public and private colleges and universities have a duty to provide resources that students with disabilities can access. While making changes to an entire website seems daunting, it is the responsibility of administrators to meet federal mandates. Unfortunately, some people might view making changes to a website as a minor issue. However, creating unnecessary barriers is not consistent with the role of high education. For this reason, I identified the following changes that HBCUs should consider including:
The time to address this critical issue is now. HBCUs still have the opportunity to avoid costly litigation. Waiting to make changes to websites and other tools could negatively impact recruitment efforts and prevent students from succeeding.
Dr. Larry J. Walker is lecturer in Educational Leadership at Loyola University Maryland.