2019.2.19.emg.mfk.Johnson Hall stock-1.jpg

Johnson Hall (Maddie Knight/Emerald)

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating a 2017 complaint made against the University of Oregon that alleges university webpages, including its homepage, financial aid page and the UO Libraries Facebook page, are not accessible to people with disabilities.

The investigation is assessing whether UO’s webpages violate federal civil rights laws by discriminating against people with disabilities. It is also assessing whether the university is failing to ensure that its communications with those who have disabilities are “as effective as its communications with others,” according to an August 2017 letter from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

The specific details of how the university’s websites potentially violate these laws are unclear. A DOE spokesperson declined to answer questions about the complaint and why it was dismissed because the Office for Civil Rights — which enforces civil rights laws within schools — is still investigating.

The office began its investigation on May 31, 2019, a year after the agency initially dismissed the complaint and after UO officials participated in a webinar about website accessibility.

“The University of Oregon firmly believes in equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities, including its website and online programs,” UO spokesperson Kay Jarvis said in a statement. “In the past year, significant progress has been made to ensure its technologies are accessible. The UO has a new policy and procedures that require an external audit and go beyond what is required by law, and technical staff who continue to train so that further improvements can be made.”

The Office for Civil Rights’ investigation will determine whether UO violated two federal civil rights laws: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Section 504 prohibits federally funded programs from denying access to people based solely on disabilities, according to the DOE website. Title II extends these protections by including state and local government programs that are not funded by the federal government.

The agency requested documents and information from UO after it received the complaint, including all policies and procedures related to the creation, modification and editing of the university’s website; who designs and maintains UO websites; and copies of any and all communications about efforts to make the website accessible.

UO Associate General Counsel Bryan Dearinger responded to the office’s notice of an investigation with a three-page letter in June 2019. His letter outlines the university’s efforts to make its “information communication technologies” accessible after receiving the complaint the year prior, hoping the investigation would close “in an expeditious manner.”

Those responses included starting a workgroup of members from various UO departments to review accessibility practices at other universities; establishing a website-accessibility complaint page with instructions on how to file complaints; requesting $179,000 per year in funding to create a new full-time position for digital accessibility and to support “additional web accessibility efforts.”

“We anticipate these actions and the university’s ongoing commitment [will] lead to a closure of the investigation,” Jarvis said.

If the Office for Civil Rights finds any compliance concerns, it will then contact the university “regarding next steps in the process,” according to a May 2019 letter. A DOE spokesperson declined to elaborate on what those next steps might look like.

The Emerald learned of the DOE investigation through a public records request and will continue to report on the investigation. The letters can be viewed here.