Step 6: Legal Compliance

Virtual writing classes and labs occupy a unique space, academically, because the concepts and skills we teach and support are mentioned specifically in federal legislation and regulations: interpersonal interaction and communication. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office:

The ADA Amendments Act rejected several Supreme Court decisions which had narrowed the definition of an individual with disabilities. In addition, the ADA Amendments Act set out guidelines for determining who qualifies as an individual with disabilities and provided a non-exhaustive list of “major life activities,” which includes learning, reading, concentrating, and thinking. (2009, p. 3-4)

The Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 applies to university courses, as clarified by 1990 amendments that explicitly extended legal protections to post-secondary students. Consider the weight of this responsibility. Our virtual writing spaces, and our physical spaces, are helping individuals with disabilities that might affect the same skills considered essential for academic success. Key to fostering these skills in a virtual space is designing for effective communication. The ADA website emphasizes the following regulatory language:

III-4.3200 Effective communication. In order to provide equal access, a public accommodation is required to make available appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication. The type of auxiliary aid or service necessary to ensure effective communication will vary in accordance with the length and complexity of the communication involved.
 
While consultation is strongly encouraged, the ultimate decision as to what measures to take to ensure effective communication rests in the hands of the public accommodation, provided that the method chosen results in effective communication. (http://www.ada.gov, 2009)

Notice that no specific accommodations are described within the ADA. The only guidelines is that we “make available appropriate auxiliary aids” in our classrooms and labs, including virtual spaces. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 added new provisions to the Higher Education Act of 1965, requiring supports for disabled students, yet it also offers no specific accommodations.

For clear technology recommendations, we must turn to Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The official Section 508 website (http://www.section508.gov/) features technology guidelines issued by federal regulators. These guidelines are updated regularly as technology evolves. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), a sub-committee of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) also maintains a website (http://www.w3.org/WAI/) with guidelines similar to Section 508 (Seale, 2006).

Although writing instructors and tutors can use the legal mandates to help persuade administrators of the need for inclusive virtual spaces, the laws contain a serious weakness. If designing an inclusive space presents a “burden” to an institution, another vaguely defined standard, administration can deny instructors or students access to accommodative resources.

While schools are required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified students and bear the costs, schools are not required to provide accommodations that would fundamentally alter the nature of a program, lower or waive essential academic requirements, or result in undue financial or administrative burdens. (Milani, 1996, p. 4)

Privacy and Disclosure Rights.A final legal concern in writing spaces is that of disability disclosure. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974, the disability services office of a college or university only informs instructors of the accommodations required by a student, not the underlying disability. An instructor may not disclose any accommodations provided to a student, nor the underlying disability. Realistically, in a physical space accommodations are obvious to other students. However, a virtual space complicates issues of disclosure.

Having a clear inclusion policy posted in an online space is essential. You cannot and should not ask students to disclose any special needs to their peers. You can, however, encourage students to discuss important issues and experiences affecting their lives. Remember, you cannot violate FERPA or any additional privacy rules of your institution.