The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) received 6,390 complaints related to disability discrimination over the 2022 fiscal year — the highest number of complaints in five years.
The OCR provides raw data regarding complaints, but does not provide detailed information about the nature of those complaints. However, in comments reported by The New York Times, Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, described the increase in complaints as encouraging.
“It reflects the confidence in the Office for Civil Rights as a place to seek redress,” Lhamon said. “At the same time, the scope and volume of harm that we’re asking our babies to navigate is astronomical.”
Why Disability Discrimination Complaints Are Rising
Students and their families may file complaints with the OCR for any alleged discrimination. This might include physical barriers (such as missing wheelchair ramps), inaccessible learning materials, harassment, and poor responses to reports of discrimination.
But many of the previously reported complaints against public schools and higher education institutions have cited issues with virtual learning. When U.S. schools closed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions struggled to provide accessible materials for all students — particularly those with disabilities affecting their hearing, vision, or cognition.
Examples of Digital Accessibility Barriers in E-Learning
In 2020, automated tests performed by the Bureau of Internet Accessibility's a11y® analysis platform found that 12 of the nation’s most highly-rated elementary schools had detectable web accessibility barriers.
That analysis focused on web accessibility. Electronic learning (e-learning) platforms may be considerably more complex than school websites — and the potential for accessibility barriers is much greater.
Some examples of e-learning barriers include:
- Missing captions for videos, which make content inaccessible for D/deaf students.
- Poor keyboard accessibility, which may make content inaccessible for people who use a keyboard alone (no mouse) to use computers.
- Missing alternative text (also called alt text) for images, graphs, and other non-text content.
- Low-contrast text, which may make content difficult to read for people with color vision deficiencies (CVD, also called color blindness) and other vision disabilities.
- Strict time limits for tests and quizzes, which may not accommodate students who need more time to enter information due to conditions affecting their motor skills, hearing, cognition, or vision.
- Providing students with PDFs and other web-delivered documents that have not been optimized for accessibility.
This isn’t a complete list of all potential accessibility issues. Educators and administrators should ensure that all digital content follows the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standard for digital accessibility.
Digital Accessibility Requirements for Public and Private Schools
For both public and private schools, WCAG isn’t optional. Educational facilities must provide accessible content to comply with various non-discrimination laws:
- The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which governs how state and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services.
- Section 504 and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 expands definitions of students with disabilities and defines standards (including the Revised Section 508 standards) for digital content.
- Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) apply to public and private institutions, respectively. The ADA requires schools to take reasonable efforts to accommodate students with disabilities, which includes providing accessible online content.
To avoid OCR demand letters, schools should take a proactive approach
Digital accessibility isn’t optional for schools — but it’s not a burden, either.
When learning materials and school websites are designed with an inclusive mindset, every student benefits. An estimated 25% of the U.S. population has some form of disability, and by following WCAG, educators can give every student the resources they need for exceptional performance.
Rather than addressing accessibility barriers individually, we recommend a thorough, proactive approach:
- Provide digital accessibility training to educators, information technology (IT) workers, and other staff members.
- Learn about the principles of accessible design and use those principles when designing content.
- Publish an accessibility statement that establishes your institution’s goals and identifies known accessibility barriers.
- Regularly test your website, e-learning apps, and other digital resources to maintain conformance with WCAG and the Revised Section 508 standards.
At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, our goal is to make the internet more inclusive for everyone — and to help educators develop an accessibility-first mindset.
To start building a sustainable plan for digital compliance, send us a message to connect with a subject matter expert.