Online Education and Website Accessibility

Colleges and universities have an obligation to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Title II). Section 504 prohibits disability discrimination by schools receiving federal financial assistance. Title II prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including schools.

Accessible technology may afford students, including students with disabilities, an opportunity to have access to high-quality educational instruction during an extended school closure, especially when continuing education must be provided through distance learning. Recent guidance from the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights aims to assist postsecondary institutions with meeting their obligations under federal civil rights laws during the COVID-19 outbreak.

OCR Webinar on Civil Rights and COVID-19

The U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights presents a short webinar on online education and website accessibility.

Questions and Answers for Postsecondary Institutions

Sample of OCR responses to questions related to obligations under federal civil rights laws during the COVID-19 national emergency.
  • Do institutions that provide distance learning still have to comply with federal disability laws?

    Yes. The Department of Education (Department) understands that postsecondary institutions are working to move programs to a distance learning format in order to continue to serve students during a COVID-19 interruption, while seeking ways to ensure that all students have access to meaningful educational opportunities even under these difficult circumstances. Institutions must still meet the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Title II), and other Federal disability statutes. Postsecondary institutions should continue to educate students online even as they develop and improve their ability to meet the requirements of Federal disability law. The Department recognizes that in this unique and ever-changing environment, these exceptional circumstances may affect how education, including accommodations for students with disabilities, are provided. Institutions should not decline to provide distance instruction out of a fear that they must first address all 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, and should take reasonable steps to address the needs of students with disabilities.

  • If institutions are offering distance learning, what resources are they required to provide to students with disabilities in order to comply with Federal civil rights laws?

    Students with disabilities at postsecondary institutions must receive academic adjustments, auxiliary aids and services, and reasonable modifications in policies, practices, and procedures, where doing so would not impose an undue burden nor cause a fundamental alteration to the service, program, or activity. Some academic adjustments, auxiliary aids and services, and reasonable modifications in the postsecondary context can be provided online, while some cannot. Whether an institution serves students in a brick-andmortar or an online environment, the institution must ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to access educational programs, consistent with protecting the health and safety of the student and those providing that education to the student. Where possible, instructors should work to accommodate students with disabilities, such as by using audio technology to read documents to students who are visually impaired. It may be appropriate to make other academic adjustments and reasonable accommodations through virtual means, such as online or telephonically. Postsecondary students with disabilities typically work with their disability services coordinators through an interactive process to determine appropriate academic adjustments, auxiliary aids and services, and modifications.

  • What if an institution providing distance instruction determines it cannot offer a student with a disability a particular effective academic adjustment?

    OCR recognizes that educational institutions are straining to address the challenges of this national emergency. OCR encourages institutions to think creatively to provide alternative methods of accommodation. These types of innovative solutions may utilize new technology or other options to meet the needs of students with disabilities. If an institution can establish that providing a particular aid or service would result in a fundamental alteration or undue burden, the institution would still be required to take other steps—steps that would not result in such an alteration or such burdens—but which would nevertheless ensure that, to the maximum extent possible, the individual with a disability can participate in, and receive the benefits or services provided by, the institution’s education program or activity.

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