When it comes to web accessibility, the prevailing attitude at most schools is “we’ll get to it when we have to.”
Well, that day is coming up fast for American public schools.
The websites of 350 educational institutions are being investigated by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for their accessibility to people with disabilities. The OCR is cracking down on public school districts to ensure their websites are ADA-compliant.
Attorney Patrick Andriano, who specializes in education law, explains why:The OCR enforces, among other things, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the ADA.
Section 504 and the ADA generally require that school districts provide qualified individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services, or activities, unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of the program.
The OCR takes the position that this equal access requirement extends to school districts’ websites.
Federal Investigations into Web Accessibility in Higher Education
The OCR and US Department of Justice (DOJ) have been active in investigating higher ed institutions for web accessibility in recent years.
The federal agencies cited multiple ADA violations in the universities’ websites, digital coursework, LMS system, multimedia, and library resources. These resources were partially or completely inaccessible to students with visual, hearing, cognitive, learning, or physical disabilities.
At these universities, web accessibility had been an afterthought, something that lacked institution-wide buy-in. Scrutiny from federal agencies triggered a proactive adoption of web accessibility policy, procedures, and auditing.
Making an entire institution’s digital activities accessible is no small task, and it is not without cost. That’s why it’s difficult to get most schools on board with proactive solutions.
This is especially true in K-12, where the OCR has taken little direct action.
OCR Investigations of Public School Websites
The OCR is increasingly examining K-12 public schools for their web accessibility and compliance with disability law.
The public websites for these schools must be accessible to anyone who can access them — so that includes students, parents, faculty, staff, and members of the public.
These schools need to comply with:
- The ADA, which requires that any organization, public or private, provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities to access information, goods, or services.
- Section 504, a disability antidiscrimination law that applies to any organization that accepts federal funding, which most public schools districts do.
Non-compliant school websites can result in accessibility lawsuits against the district.
Avoiding Web Accessibility Lawsuits with Preventative Action
In a way, getting the OCR involved first helps institutions identify their compliance problems and take action before they are sued.
Attorney Andriano explains:If, as part of its investigation, OCR finds that a school district’s website has accessibility problems, OCR and the school district typically enter into a voluntary resolution agreement that outlines the specific steps the school district will take to resolve the OCR’s concerns.
For instance, OCR recently investigated concerns under Section 504 and Title II of the ADA that individuals with disabilities, particularly those with visual impairments, could not access a district’s website in Virginia Beach, VA, public schools.
As part of the resolution agreement, the district agreed to undertake an assessment of its entire website to identity and correct accessibility concerns, develop and implement a website accessibility policy, and provide training on website accessibility to appropriate employees.
How to Make Public School Websites Accessible
If they want to avoid unwanted attention from federal agencies, public school districts would be well advised to audit their school websites for accessibility and take action sooner rather than later.
Here are some helpful resources for testing and remediating websites and documents:
- 10 Tips for Creating Accessible Course Content
- Tips for Making Online Documents Accessible: Word, PowerPoint, Excel & PDF
- Free Tools for Testing Website Accessibility
- Bonus Tips on Web Accessibility Testing with David Berman
To learn more about making your website accessible, download:
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