ADA Accessibility at HFC

In the past, individuals with disabilities were not encouraged to go to school nor were they considered educable. America has since changed its stance on education for the disabled. At Henry Ford College, respecting the rights of people with disabilities is a priority.

“Everyone is capable of learning something. Everyone has the potential, the learning may just be in a different style whether it’s through an interpreter or brailing, but everyone has some intelligence or potential to advance,” says Dr. Maureen Webster, Counselor in Assisted Learning Services. “I think the U.S. has one of the finest programs in the world to assist with disabilities. Michigan also has one of the best services in the country to help disabled students that don’t get high school diplomas. These students may continue their education and to get a certificate and they also will have vocational training and bussing to the training, and full funding for some kind of training to age 26. Students at Henry Ford College must have a high school diploma, but once again it shows how Michigan is really one of the leaders in training students with disabilities.”

HFC’s Office of Assisted Learning “provide[s] materials in an accessible format for all students, whatever their disability,” states Webster. “The office of Assisted Learning is funded from a variety of sources, state funds in general, money to the college, property taxes... and college tuition funds.” On July 26, 1990, George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure freedom of choice, independence and equality for the disabled. Since then, this act has been revised to ensure accessibility as well. According to the ADA website, this act “prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities and transportation. It also mandates the establishment of TDD/telephone relay services.”

Under the ADA, colleges are required to be accessible to students with disabilities. “There are two different types of accessibility, or ADA requirements that institutions, not just higher education, but any type of institution has to abide by, and that is accessibility in terms of its physical plan…[and] online accessibility, making sure that content is indeed accessible,” states Dr. Adam Cloutier, Director, Teaching and Learning Support. The physical plan includes a variety of measures to be taken on campus to ensure the inclusion and equality of all students. This means handicap parking must be available. In any location where there is a stairwell, there must also be a ramp or elevator available. Tables need to be adjustable to be wheelchair friendly, and seating furniture needs to be accessible. There are also additional services like interpreters and notetakers, which are made available upon request.

About 5-7 percent of the student body uses these services. Perhaps some don’t know that the school offers these assistances to them or they choose not to use them. Even though all these systems are in place to help students excel in higher education, this doesn’t mean a student would be able to achieve any degree available. Some of these degrees have physical requirements that some people may not be able to accomplish, much like a pilot requires 20/20 vision in order to do the job safely.

If a student needs, or thinks she or he may need ADA assistance she or he is encouraged to visit the Office of Assisted Learning. Students need to provide proper medical or academic documentation stating their disability. “We refer people to other places like the learning lab for tutoring, sometimes people have other issues, and we refer them to outside agencies. There are places like Michigan Rehabilitation Services, an agency that helps find employment for students,” states Webster.

Each HFC program has its own academic requirements, possibly including resumes, grade-point-average, and ability to perform certain tasks. The individual programs have a lot of accommodations for students with disabilities. For students who are unsure whether they would be accepted into a specific program, they are encouraged to speak with the individual program directors to see what the requirements are and what the day-to-day activities involve.

Khodr Farhat, HFC alumnus who utilized Assisted Learning Services spoke of his personal experience with HFC’s accessibility. He states that HFC’s accessibility services are adequate, and that his own experience proves it. “I would never have succeeded without it. It’s important that a college should get students ready for the real world… HFC does just that. It is a really great education institution. I love the staff, the teachers, the administration and every single thing that’s affiliated with it. As a visually impaired student, I received everything I needed.”

ADA online accessibility means all online content must be accessible for the blind and deaf. This includes closed captioning on any videos and content that is understandable via screen reader. It is important for colleges and universities to comply with the ADA to ensure educational equality.

“Recently, it came to our attention that [HFC] is not completely in compliance in regards to our online course being accessible,” states Scott Still, English Faculty and Chair of the Committee for Online Learning and Teaching in the English Division. “A couple years ago some activist[...] started a crusade to ensure that online education is as accessible for disabled students as the classrooms are required to be. There were a number of lawsuits-- colleges, faculty and software providers were sued.” This was a national trend, but HFC was not sued.

Seyfarth Shaw, a law firm specializing in ADA cases, reports that 61 lawsuits alleging that a defendant’s inaccessible website violates Title III of the ADA have been filed or removed to federal court since January 2015. Of those, two have been for academic websites. Harvard and M.I.T. were among the colleges sued over failing to provide closed captioning on thousands of online videos. Judges found that the universities violated Title III of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. While the ADA prohibits any discrimination against any person with disabilities, Section 504 establishes federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities.

In order to meet online accessibility here at HFC, a steering committee was created in order to investigate the accessibility of the college’s online classes and online educational content. Members of the steering committee included Cloutier, Webster and Still. “We put together this plan that was multi-pronged, but the first step was really the educational stage. Odds are, the majority of individuals at this college, whether they are teaching or just sitting in a class, have no idea or no knowledge of what it means to be accessible or inaccessible, so the first stage was education,” states Cloutier.

Presentations were given by the steering committee at the gathering of all faculty at their Faculty Organization meetings to prepare the faculty for ADA online compliance requirements. Staff and faculty were informed about the meaning of accessibility, what the federal government requires institutions to do, and the plan that the steering committee has put in place.

In addition, instructional technologists Kristin Olin-Sullivan and Victoria Bessette attended academic division meetings in order to help educate the faculty members about accessibility and the committee’s plan.

The second step would be what is called a baseline audit. This has been used in colleges and institutions that were cited in civil or other litigations. The baseline audit is a proactive way to determine where the college currently stands regarding online accessibility. It is a webform that faculty fill out in order to analyze online documents and media they have for their classes, and if they offer appropriate accessibility. The baseline audit is due Dec. 31.

Stage three is training faculty on the use and development of accessibility and accessibility tools. This stage will begin in the winter 2017 semester and allow staff to identify where they need accessibility improvement. Stage four, “improvement,” is tied into step 3, which asks the staff to rectify the issues their classes may have as they learn what the issues are. “Faculty members will be trained in one of two ways,” states Cloutier. “We have created a webpage as part of education as well… we have a page dedicated for resources for faculty... where they can learn at their own pace by reading and watching videos, or they can come on campus and work with my staff members who can train them.” Steps three and four will extend until fall 2017.

The final steps will be the post test, which will be a reissuing of the baseline audit. “This will take place winter 2018, and ensure that we are abiding by the law,” states Cloutier. ”The final stage is an ongoing process. Every year we will offer training for our faculty members to educate them on what accessibility is… the audits will be resubmitted every few years to show that we are good stewards of the federal government’s faith in us, and to identify any weaknesses or gaps so we can educate people and do more training.” HFC has been working hard to adjust its school and teachings to adhere to the requirements and hopes to continue progressing in the coming years.

“Always there should be room to improve...just keep expanding, keep integrating the technology and let’s spread more awareness,” states Farhat. While accessibility is an ongoing process, HFC is working hard to stay true to the slogan, “Future Driven,” in order to provide accessibility to all students.