Why Your School Needs a Director of Digital Accessibility

Instead of waiting for a lawsuit to react to digital accessibility issues at your institution, staffing a dedicated accessibility director role will benefit both your users and your site content.


The legal ramifications of accessibility non-compliance are real. But keeping up with ever changing standards can be challenging when there’s not a centralized approach to managing all that goes into digital accessibility. Some schools are changing that with the implementation of a new leadership role. 

A University of South Carolina digital accessibility report, published in 2020, shared some high-level findings, which included the item: There is no current role that can handle oversight of all digital accessibility efforts. That finding was further described with this statement: 

“Rallying an entire university around digital accessibility and overseeing the effort is a huge job. No existing role will have the time or expertise needed to identify accessibility problems, recommend solutions, and keep everyone on track for compliance.” 

Today, the university has a director of digital accessibility, a role described as the “leading voice for a more inclusive, accessible digital campus.” 

All institutions should have that voice. While specific titles and where this role falls on the org chart may vary from school to school, executive-level positions like these are emerging in higher education. It’s important to note that accessibility leadership roles have long been staples in the academic support departments dedicated to providing accommodations to students with disabilities, but a position tasked with overseeing an institution’s overall digital accessibility efforts is a growing area of interest.

Why it Matters: Legal, Financial, and Ethical Considerations

Higher education professionals are genuinely driven by a desire to do the right thing, but for many reasons — lack of support, funding, buy-in, to name a few — digital accessibility often doesn’t get the careful attention it needs. But the hard truth is that colleges and universities can and will be sued or cited for lack of compliance. 

A 2022 report from AAAtraq revealed that 48% of college and university websites were classified as high-risk for litigation; further, only 4% were considered low-risk. The University of Minnesota Duluth’s accessible technology team maintains a list of higher education-related accessibility lawsuits, settlements, and complaints; this sprawling list serves as a reminder of why addressing accessibility issues matters, ethically and financially, to our institutions. 

Potential legal fees aside, there’s also ethical standards to consider. Many colleges and universities today tout inclusivity as a part of their mission, even include it in their brand pillars — and digital accessibility compliance helps deliver on that promise.

Role of a Digital Accessibility Director in Higher Education

Who is responsible for digital accessibility? When thinking of college an university websites, the answer that might immediately come to mind is the site owners or designated content creators/editors across the university. But accessibility extends beyond the web and it spans properties, departments, and divisions. How can the institution unify these efforts — and support and govern them? Who can help leaders in marketing/communications, information technology, instructional design, and even procurement manage their own teams and decisions? Some schools are responding by creating a centralized digital accessibility leadership role. 

While specific job duties for a director of digital accessibility will vary between schools, a review of dozens of position descriptions revealed these these common responsibilities:

  • Ensures compliance with laws and regulations
  • Enforces internal policies and procedures
  • Maintains a master list of all of the institution’s digital properties
  • Audits web properties and digital assets regularly 
  • Manages a digital accessibility team
  • Leads internal training efforts on various aspects of accessibility 
  • Leads the school’s accessibility committee/task force
  • Coordinates with procurement office to review and vet purchases
  • Responds to stakeholder questions and complaints

Perusing archived and current job postings will also help give some ideas for the scope for roles like these. (Here’s one from Tarrant County College, another from University of Rochester, and one from Brandeis University.)

Example Titles/Reporting Structures 

Here are a few examples to give you an idea of some models and make-ups (and to show the variety of approaches and sizes):

  • The University of Chicago has a Center for Digital Accessibility within its IT division. The team consists of a director of digital accessibility, along with a few specialists in either web technology or accessible technology. 
  • Stanford University’s IT division has an Office of Digital Accessibility, led by a director of digital accessibility, that provides “guidance and direction for the adoption, development, and procurement of accessible electronic content and services.”
  • Harvard University’s Digital Accessibility Services team is led by a director of digital accessibility services and includes developers, consultants, and analysts. 
  • The University of Colorado Boulder’s Digital Accessibility Office is part of the Office of Integrity, Safety & Compliance. This team, led by a director/digital accessibility office, includes testing coordinators, captioning specialists, and service managers.
  • Syracuse University’s Digital Accessibility Services team, a department of Information Technology Services, is led by an assistant director of digital disability and includes a specialist and training consultant. 
  • These are just a few examples; many colleges and universities are setting examples of how we can centralize digital accessibility efforts and support other divisions, departments, offices, and teams across an institution. 

Making the Case for a Director of Digital Accessibility

The process for creating a new position — and recruiting for it — varies widely throughout the higher education landscape. Lobbying for an inaugural director-level position often starts with internal and external research; the roadmap from The University of South Carolina serves as an example deliverable that makes a strong case for hiring a director of digital accessibility. A few areas you might want to consider for research include:

  • Accessibility review of your primary web entities 
  • Accessibility audit of all digital products and properties (such as learning management system, digital signage, and third-party platforms)
  • Review of roles and responsibilities of current positions that involve aspects of accessibility
  • Conversations with key institutional leaders (such as IT, student disability services, and instructional design)
  • Interviews/forums with key stakeholders (such as students, parents, staff, faculty, and alumni)

Many colleges and universities established committees to address digital accessibility. If a director-level role does not exist at your institution yet, this committee could be a good place to start, such as spearheading a task force to help in this research and support efforts to create a director of digital accessibility position. 

In summary

Digital accessibility is not optional. It’s not a nice-to-have. It’s necessary. The web, digital platforms, and user needs will continue to evolve. Having a key leadership role dedicated to keeping up will help ensure we’re always up to date with laws and best practices surrounding accessibility. 

OHO Interactive specializes in digital marketing for higher education. We’d love to talk with you about your web accessibility, user research, and other needs.

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