OCR Guidance on Disability Rights and Distance Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic

On April 3, 2020, the Office for Civil Rights continued its guidance on how institutions can implement distance learning while complying with federal civil rights laws. This guidance is timely because, as we all know, distance learning due to COVID-19 is redefining how most educational institutions operate. When all levels of academic institutions had to close their doors due to stay-at-home orders, many of them opened the proverbial window by turning to online education.  Despite its increasing popularity over the past decade or so, distance learning remains an emerging and potentially scary (as well as exciting) landscape for many institutions as they navigate purchasing/installing new technology, implementing new methods of teaching, and ensuring connectivity with students. OCR’s guidance provides a roadmap to this new territory.

In further response to some institutions declining to use distance learning at all because they were unsure of being able to provide a free and appropriate public education (K-12) or appropriate accommodations (postsecondary) to students with disabilities, OCR reiterated:

“[I]nstitutions should not decline to provide distance instruction, at the expense of most students, to address matters pertaining to accommodations for students with disabilities.  Rather, institutions must make decisions that take into consideration the health, safety, and well-being of all their students and staff.”

OCR recognized institutions may not be able to provide services in this new digital environment in the same manner as before. But institutions should explore whether an online environment offers alternative services that are equally effective (if not better).  And the same tenets for brick-and-mortar education are still true for online learning:

  • Postsecondary institutions should be flexible and creative during the interactive process, which will help identify new or alternative accommodations and permit students with disabilities to have equal opportunities to access services.
  • Disability services coordinators should be accessible and continue to be the point person for the accommodation process at postsecondary institutions.

OCR’s guidance also reminded institutions of the advice of its leadership—Kenneth Marcus (Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights) and Randolph Wills (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Enforcement)—in their March 17, 2020 video overview of website accessibility:

  • Individuals with disabilities must have equal opportunities as students without disabilities to participate in services, programs and activities.
  • Online learning should be developed and maintained to be accessible to individuals with a variety of disabilities.
  • Online learning should be compatible with a wide variety of forms of assistive technology (e.g., screen readers, mouth joysticks, eye tracking inputs, etc.).
  • This is not a one-and-done issue. Rather, institutions should regularly test their online activities to ensure they are accessible. This  may include automated testing, but should also be supplemented by manual testing.
  • Educators can request technical assistance by emailing: OCRWebAccessTA@ed.gov.

Our prior blog post examines these and similar considerations for website accessibility (and how they relate to million dollar lawsuit settlements).

If you do not have time to watch the 7-minute video, we leave you with two “key point” quotes:

“Online learning is a powerful tool for educational institutions as long as it is accessible for everyone.” 

–Kenneth Marcus

“When we use the term ‘accessible,’ we mean that individuals with disabilities can acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same programs and activities as their nondisabled peers, with substantially equivalent ease of use.”

–Randolph Wills