Digital Accessibility in Higher Education: A Case Study

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Accessibility is essential if all students are to participate fully in higher education. Eleven percent of all college and university students in the U.S. today have disabilities, which adds up to more than 2.25 million students — a participation rate almost four times greater than it was in 1981.

digital accessibility in higher education

One of the main reasons for this increase is improved accessibility of infrastructure, such as more wheelchair-accessible entrances to campus buildings.

While this is certainly an improvement, 11 percent is still a low number when you consider that almost 16 percent of adults ages 18 to 44 in the general population have disabilities.

Campus buildings may be more accessible now than they were in the 1980s, but new technology barriers have cropped up over the years that didn’t even exist a few decades ago.

To address these technological barriers, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso (TTUHSC El Paso) recently launched an initiative to make vast improvements to its online offerings for students with disabilities. In partnership with eSSENTIAL Accessibility, the university has adopted a comprehensive digital accessibility solution, including a thorough evaluation of its digital properties to ensure that all are fully usable by people with disabilities and compliant with Section 508 of The Rehabilitation Act.

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TTUHSC El Paso instructs more than 600 students in medicine, nursing and graduate research in biomedical sciences. It also delivers a wide range of uncompensated health care services to a diverse community. As a modern institution providing the most advanced education in diagnostics and medical treatments, TTUHSC El Paso is committed to updating its websites, videos, PDFs and apps, and ensuring that they are accessible to students, faculty, staff and others who have disabilities.

Read the university’s accessibility case study here.

Why Digital Accessibility Matters to Students

Technology is integral to higher education. When it’s not fully accessible, it shuts out a large number of potential learners.

In a 2015 issue of Disability Studies Quarterly, Dr. Mike Kent of Curtin University’s Department of Internet Studies wrote about digital barriers in education1:

“Students with disabilities can become invisible online. This means that more care and thought needs to be put into employing universal design practice,” he noted. “eLearning holds many possibilities for inclusion for people with disabilities, however the online platforms utilized must provide access for all students.”

With an accessibility overhaul of its digital properties, TTUHSC El Paso is demonstrating to the student and broader communities that it’s committed to an inclusive and disability-friendly environment — not just on the physical campus, but in every component of its students’ education.

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Examples of Digital Barriers

Earlier this month, Chicago-based open source developer Safia Abdalla put out a call over Twitter: “If you have a disability, what’s the hardest thing about browsing the web?”

To date, her question has been retweeted more than 1,500 times and received comments from people with a variety of disabilities, including blindness, deafness, ADHD and physical disabilities. The digital barriers they listed included:

  1. videos that aren’t adequately captioned, and audio that isn’t transcribed
  2. moving or blinking content that can’t be paused or hidden
  3. large blocks of text that aren’t properly spaced or formatted
  4. text and pages that can’t be resized (enlarged) without interfering with the layout
  5. poor contrast between the text and the background colors
  6. missing alternative text (alt text) for images and logos

All of these digital barriers can prevent people with disabilities from fully using a website or app. For students, it reduces their ability to participate in educational programs. But the same kinds of barriers can also exist outside of the educational system, where online inaccessibility might prevent someone from completing their online shopping, from doing their banking, from understanding government services or from applying for a job.

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Download our whitepaper How Higher Education is Failing Students with Disabilities to learn more.

What Section 508 Means for Higher Education Institutions

All postsecondary institutions in the U.S. are required by law to be fully accessible to students with disabilities. A majority of them are covered under The Rehabilitation Act, which states that any program that receives financial assistance from the federal government — which encompasses most universities and colleges in the country — must not exclude or discriminate against anyone on the basis of disability.

Section 508 of The Rehabilitation Act specifies that electronic and information technology, including websites and online services, must be accessible to students with disabilities and conform to the standards of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Private postsecondary institutions that do not receive government funding are also prohibited from discriminating against students with disabilities. They may not be covered under The Rehabilitation Act, but the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is still in place to guarantee equal treatment for people with disabilities.

These laws mean that all online and offline services that are offered to students must be equally available to students who have disabilities. It includes websites, apps and electronic documents. And make no mistake — this interpretation of the law is being consistently applied to institutions of higher learning.

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The Information Technology Systems and Services Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth has compiled a thorough list of successful complaints and lawsuits2 against colleges and universities for inaccessible websites and technologies that were in violation of Section 508.

Digital Accessibility Is Welcoming

Administrators at TTUHSC El Paso understand that improving digital accessibility will lead to better participation by students with disabilities, while ensuring that the institution is in compliance with Section 508.

But the benefits don’t end there. By welcoming and including people with disabilities, TTUHSC El Paso will attract a greater diversity of exceptional students. It will enrich its student population. It will improve its reputation. Ultimately, TTUHSC El Paso will provide higher quality opportunities for the community at large.

An Innovative Solution

eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.


  1. digital barriers in education Disability Studies Quarterly, 2015.
  2. successful complaints and lawsuits University of Minnesota Duluth, 2017.

What to do next

We can help you meet WCAG standards and maintain ADA and AODA compliance:

  1. Connect with us today to learn more about our comprehensive approach to digital accessibility, including our automated and manual auditing capabilities and extensive range of managed services.
  2. Visit our resources section to download free white papers and webinars, and find our newest blogs on industry trends.
  3. Connect with us to continue the conversation on Linkedin, Twitter, or Facebook.

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