OCR Reaches Web Accessibility Agreement with 11 Educational Institutions

July 29, 2016 BY EMILY GRIFFIN
Updated: June 3, 2019


This month, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) reached settlements with eleven different educational organizations facing web accessibility complaints.

It was reported earlier this spring that the OCR was investigating over 350 school districts for website accessibility violations. Eleven of those under scrutiny reached an agreement with the OCR to remedy their websites.

Those organizations include:

  • Bellingham School District (Washington)
  • Granite School District (Utah)
  • Guam Department of Education
  • Juneau School District (Alaska)
  • Montana School for the Deaf and Blind
  • Nevada Department of Education
  • Oregon Department of Education
  • Santa Fe Public Schools (New Mexico)
  • The Davidson Academy of Nevada
  • Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction
  • Washoe County School District (Nevada)

The OCR is charged with preventing educational institutions from discriminating against people with disabilities, be they students, faculty, staff, or members of the public.

A school’s digital resources must be accessible to users who have physical, sensory, cognitive, or learning disabilities. A school’s public-facing website must also be fully accessible, so as not to discourage or prevent disabled students or employees from applying.

Which Web Accessibility Laws Were Broken?

The OCR letters of complaint to schools cite violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the organizations’ websites.

Section 504

Section 504 applies to organizations that accept federal funding (just about every state school district or education department does). Disability case law suggests that organizations implicated by Section 504 are subject to the specific web accessibility requirements in Section 508.

Section 508 outlines clear standards for accessible web design, and after an ICT refresh in October, it will be even more comprehensive.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The ADA applies to all “places of public accommodation.” Schools and colleges definitely fall into that category.

The ADA requires that digital communication, products, services, and resources be made accessible to people with disabilities upon request. For a website, that means offering alternative formats of documents upon request, creating a clear semantic structure, closed captioning videos, and more.

How Were the Websites Inaccessible?

When the OCR investigated these institutions, they found the following web design issues that made the sites inaccessible or only partially accessible to disabled users:

  • Videos without closed captions
  • Images without Alt text markup
  • Website features or structure that was not navigable by keyword — a necessary function for people who are blind, low-vision, or have limited dexterity.
  • Poor color contrast for text, making it illegible for some

What Was the Agreement?

All eleven institutions voluntarily agreed to certain conditions in order to end the OCR investigation.

The agreement consisted mainly of two parts:

  1. Assurances of Nondiscrimination – a written commitment to making and maintaining an accessible web presence
  2. Benchmarks for Measuring Accessibility – sets WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the target compliance standard

The agreement details the process for complying with the laws, starting with an audit of existing web content and an adoption of an official web accessibility policy. The institution must design an OCR-approved process for ensuring new content is accessible and a plan for remediating content deemed inaccessible during the audit. Once the OCR approves of the plan, it goes into effect within 30 days.

The institution must report to the OCR every 6 months with a status update until the plan is completed. Meanwhile, all applicable staff must be trained in accessible design practices so they are equipped with the knowledge and skills to maintain an accessible site.

To learn more about making your course content accessible and compliant with disability law, download:

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