Anatomy of a Higher Education Digital Accessibility Lawsuit

When it comes to being the subject of a higher education digital accessibility lawsuit, just how bad can it get? Here we walk through that answer as well as ways to dramatically reduce the threat. 

Making the content on your website fully accessible to those with disabilities is obviously the “right” thing to do. It benefits these prospective students, invites diversity into the college or university, and yes, it protects you legally. 

Why Do Higher Education Organizations Get Sued?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 seeks to ensure students have access to a fully accessible educational experience. This includes the ability to explore student housing and campus facilities online. Actually, accessibility was a legal requirement even prior to the ADA. Section 504 required all schools receiving federal funding to make sure programs were accessible to blind students. 

This is nothing new. But sadly, even though there are the best of intentions, many schools continue to lag in providing this kind of support, which in turn invites a higher education digital accessibility lawsuit. 

Such suits are not frivolous. Students would much rather spend their time and money being students and getting prepared for their careers than legally forcing universities to come into ADA compliance. The more schools become proactive instead of reactive in making their digital properties available and usable to all, the lower the likelihood students and schools will be burdened with legal action.   

Higher Education Digital Accessibility Lawsuits Aren’t Just a Threat, They Happen Regularly

And it could happen to your institution. Consider these two active lawsuits from just within the last 30 days:

MILAGROS SENIOR v. CREIGHTON UNIVERSITY – Creighton University is a private Jesuit research university in Omaha, Nebraska. The class action complaint was filed on September 22, 2022, alleging that is not sufficiently digitally accessible.

MILAGROS SENIOR v. FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON UNIVERSITY – Fairleigh Dickinson University is a private university with main campuses in New Jersey. The class action complaint was filed on September 22, 2022, alleging that is not sufficiently digitally accessible.

In the above cases from, the plaintiff requires screen-reading software to read website content. It was confirmed by a U.S. Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General that public accommodations must make the websites that universities own, operate, or control equally accessible to individuals with disabilities and that this interpretation was applied to public accommodations’ websites over 20 years ago. 

This is a civil rights action against the university for its failure to design, construct, maintain, and operate its interactive website to be fully accessible to and independently usable by blind or visually impaired persons, representing a denial of products and services. Since 1996, the Department of Justice has consistently taken the position the ADA applies to web content and that an inaccessible website can exclude people just as much as steps at an entrance to a physical location. 

The last thing you want is to see your name in a document like this.

Example of a higher education lawsuit

The Many Costs of a Higher Education Digital Accessibility Lawsuit

  • Legal defense monetary costs
  • Damage to reputation
  • Potential loss of interest from prospective students with disabilities
  • Damage to education and career prospects of students denied products or services
  • Loss of staff hours devoted to legal defense

Let’s get a little more specific.

The National Center on Disability and Access to Education ran an analysis of the costs of a higher education digital accessibility case. The student made a complaint to the Office of Civil Rights for two full semesters before deciding to sue. In litigation less than a year, the Institution settled, agreeing to reimburse the plaintiff’s legal costs, expenses, and cover damages to the plaintiff. Total estimated cost to the education institution: about three-quarters of a million dollars. And that’s with reaching a settlement vs. taking the case all the way through litigation. 

In the end, the institution also agreed to make the accessibility improvements to their web and digital content required. Had they done so prior to the lawsuit instead of putting it off, they would have saved $600,000-$750,000 plus the other costs listed in the bullet points above.  

Your School Can Now Do What Many Other Wish They Had Done

If your online and digital channels are not currently ADA-compliant, you are vulnerable each and every day. And you never know which day that notice from the court will come. Just some of the areas that need to come into compliance include: 

  • Entire organic website
  • Third-party media (virtual tours, videos)
  • Behind-the-scenes learning portals (student assignment areas)
  • Housing extension pages

The great news is that the solution is far easier and more cost-effective than you may have thought thanks to a combination of accessibility specialists and patented technology. Getting your website in great shape involves just a few steps, but for complete protection, none of these steps is expendable. 

1. A full audit of your site from a reputable company
2. Working with a developer that specializes in fully accessible websites
3. Make sure all your third-party media, including virtual tours, is accessible. 

For the first two, we at Barnes Creative Studios can make referrals to highly qualified resources. They are the best of the best because our own standards in this area are incredibly high. For the third, we can produce new virtual tours or convert your existing virtual tours from most companies to be WCAG 2.1 AA ADA compliant. Here’s an example of what that looks like.

An Issue Not to Be Put Off

There are really only two choices. Remain at risk of high-dollar ADA lawsuits and hope you don’t get noticed or bring your digital content into full ADA compliance so that the risk is removed and you’re doing what’s right by students and potential students with disabilities. 

We can show you in one quick meeting just how easy that is and how the cost is infinitely lower than a court fight, or even a settlement. Feel free to book a time to speak with us at your earliest convenience. 

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