Accessibility: Not just a civil right

A recent article published by EDUCAUSE Review makes the case that framing ‘accessibility’ as a civil right is perhaps the most effective way to gain the attention of college faculty, staff, administrators, and students. That’s because a potential civil rights violation is assumed, by many, to be a serious matter that could put the organization’s finances and reputation at risk. While reading this article, an e-mail appeared in my inbox, with the subject line “Lessons Learned in Resolving DOJ/OCR Complaints About Inaccessible IT.” Similar to the article, this email highlighted the business risks associated with inaccessible IT and digital content. This all speaks to compliance, and I think we’re missing the point.

Civil rights are seriously important and when violated, the courts step in. Law suits happen but only after the violation has occurred. The individual whose rights were violated has already lost out.

College communities – including this one – work hard to be diverse, supportive environments in which all people who want to learn and grow can do so equally and effectively. But in order for this to work, the community must not see the issue as one of compliance. Instead, individuals should be personally motivated to live up to the goal they believe in – the goal of equal access to education.

Equal (and not separate) access to learning speaks to this organization’s mission as well as its goals, values, and integrity statement. It is assumed and expected that these things guide us (because we want them to) and when we find new ways to express these values it can be truly remarkable.

So, rather than reacting to accessibility compliance as a legal mandate or a frying pan that needs to be put out, let’s talk about accessibility as an opportunity to apply the equity and fairness that we already say we want for ourselves and our community. Let us all brainstorm and discuss ways to reduce the barriers that might exist for members of our learning community, particularly those with differing abilities or see, hear, or otherwise consume the content and knowledge we work so hard to share with them in our everyday work. Maybe then, the things we must do to be ‘accessible’ are just a part of what we want to be doing, and are seen as ‘par for the course.’ The ‘course’ being our mission and values, not our obligation to reduce risk.