Web Accessibility Laws That Affect K-12 Schools
Updated: March 30, 2021
One would think that all public schools, because they are federally funded, would adhere to federally enforced web accessibility laws, right? Well, not always.
Earlier this summer, the Santa Fe Public Schools website was ordered by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to make their website accessible to people with disabilities after they received a discrimination complaint.
To clarify the confusion about web accessibility requirements, we decided to put together an overview of laws that affect K-12 schools in the US.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was introduced by Congress in 1975 to ensure that children with disabilities had free, public access to the same level of education as other children. It has been revised many times over the years and is a very comprehensive piece of federal legislation that governs how states and public agencies provide proper resources for students with disabilities.
For example, this law ensures that an electronic, screen-reader-friendly version of a textbook is available in case a blind student cannot read the physical copy assigned by a teacher. Or, if a video is shown in a class with a deaf student, IDEA dictates that visual aid like closed captions or an interpreter will need to be present.
The particular arrangements for accommodating a student with a disability (i.e. what specific technologies or servicing accommodations are required, and to what degree) are decided between the student, their parents, and representatives from the school in what is called an Individual Education Program (IEP).
Read the full IDEA legislation below:
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (PDF)
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (HTML)
The Rehabilitation Act
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is an anti-discrimination law which requires federally funded programs to provide certain accommodations to people with disabilities. Because public schools receive substantial federal financial assistance, they are required to follow this law and comply with Section 504 and 508 standards.
Section 504 essentially declares civil rights for people with disabilities and broadens the scope of what defines a disability.
This law expands upon IDEA to include a wider range of students with disabilities, (i.e. mental, and “invisible” disabilities) and explicitly states that K-12 schools are prohibited from denying public education or extracurricular activity participation because of a child’s disability. K-12 public schools are thereby required to provide accommodations to people with disabilities when it becomes necessary to ensure effective communication of educational material.
This section of the Rehabilitation Act was added in 1998 to keep up with the advent and increasing use of the internet in public institutions.
While Section 508 does not explicitly invoke federally funded programs like K-12 school systems, schools usually need to comply anyway. Since K-12 schools also receive state funding, the state will usually require Section 508 compliance because the Assistive Technology Act will not provide funding to states unless they guarantee that all their programs – including K-12 schools – will comply with Section 508.
Specifically, Section 508 requires that electronic information technology (EIT) be made accessible, regardless of the medium of technology.
This includes technology like:
- Telecommunications products
- Intranet and Internet applications
- Any software, applications, websites
- Any digital content like online video that is developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal department or agency.
Section 508 also specifically mandates that open or closed captions are required to accommodate people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
In the event that a school can prove that the procurement, implementation and maintenance of making a certain kind of technology accessible is prohibitively expensive, what is called an undue hardship, they can receive exemption from Section 508’s specific standards. However, they are still legally required to communicate that individual medium of technology through some alternative means if a person with a disability makes such a request.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Passed in 1990 and amended in 2008, the ADA guarantees equal opportunity to people with disabilities regarding employment, transportation, state and local government services, public facilities and accommodations, and other areas both within the public and private sectors.
This part of the ADA states that no public entity at the state or local level (K-12 schools, police stations, courts, etc.) can discriminate against people with disabilities. This means that requests “to participate in a service, program, or activity” by a person with a disability must be met with the proper accommodation.
Similar to the requirements in the Rehabilitation Act, Title II also declares that state and local governments:
- May not refuse to allow a person with a disability to participate in a service, program, or activity simply because the person has a disability.
- Must provide programs and services in an integrated setting, unless separate or different measures are necessary to ensure equal opportunity.
- Must furnish auxiliary aids and services when necessary to ensure effective communication, unless an undue burden or fundamental alteration would result.
- Shall operate their programs so that, when viewed in their entirety, they are readily accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.
The main thing to keep in mind is that Title II requires public K-12 schools to accept and accommodate all students with disabilities.
As previously mentioned, many states require that their K-12 school systems comply with Section 508 in order to receive federal funding. Because of this legal compliance chain, many states have passed laws almost identical or very similar to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Some of these laws are also based on the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Guidelines and Standards (WCAG) version 1.0 or 2.0, which is the international standard for web content accessibility.
If you aren’t sure which specific web accessibility laws your state enforces in its K-12 school system, be sure to check your state government’s website.
K-12 Private Schools
IDEA does not regulate private schools. The language used in that law requires “each state to ensure that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is available to all eligible children with disabilities residing in that state.” However, it is common for parents to place their children in private schools and have the district’s public school system pay for special accommodations and services at the private school.
Remember that Section 504 covers federally funded programs. So, even if a private school (religious or not) receives just a small amount of federal assistance, like USDA-subsidized school lunches for example, they will have to comply with the entirety of Section 504 legislation.
Section 508 would only apply if the school received state funding and the state received federal funding through the Assistive Technology Act. It is best to keep informed on your own state’s legislation.
If a school does not receive any federal funding, it is not subject to Title II of the ADA. However, private schools are still considered “place[s] of public accommodation,” meaning that they are still subject to Title III, which requires that the organization make their facilities and services accessible to students with disabilities. There are exemptions for religiously affiliated private schools, though these vary by state.
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