Web accessibility is a major challenge for schools, largely due to updates to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), web accessibility complaints, and costly lawsuits from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
Your website might appear to be accessible to the majority of your students and staff, but individuals with vision, hearing, other physical, or learning disabilities might still have difficulty navigating your school’s website. If you forego taking the proper steps to make your website fully compliant with the ADA, you’re disregarding and shutting the door on a significant portion of your user base.
That’s why the OCR is cracking down on school websites: to ensure that they’re providing all users equal access to all programs and services.
Making the web more inclusive for everyone begins with designing with accessibility in mind. This e-book series will uncover accessibility challenges and help you understand important guidelines for design, how to make your school’s website compliant with ADA law, and how to plan, evaluate, and test with accessibility in mind.
Before we dive deeper into the above topics, you need to understand all of the considerations of ADA website compliance. Let’s start by discussing why it’s so important to ensure that your website is accessible.
What is Accessibility, and Why Does it Matter for Your School’s Website?
“Website accessibility” enables people with disabilities to view, understand, navigate, and interact with your website. For school websites, this could be anyone from students and parents to teachers, staff, and community members. By committing to accessibility as a priority for your school’s community, you give everyone the same access and opportunity, thereby expanding the educational experience to a greater number of people.
When most people hear the term “website accessibility,” their first thoughts are likely about blind or deaf people who access your website through tools and features such as captions, transcripts, and screen readers, which turn written text into spoken language. However, users with vision and hearing impairments make up only part of the story when it comes to disabilities and accessibility.
For example, some people are unable to manipulate a computer mouse or keyboard well enough to browse the Web. People with learning disabilities may be unable to glean information from elements of your website that move or change quickly. Disabilities are both visible and invisible and range from mild to severe, and the list of potential concerns is long. To ensure people are using your site to its fullest extent, you and your organization need to commit to accessibility as a priority.
How Do Different Disabilities Affect Different Users?
When evaluating your website’s accessibility, you need to incorporate perspectives from the entire spectrum of disabilities. The four common categories of disability are:
- Visual: These disabilities include people who are blind or who have limited vision, as well as those with color-blindness. Concerns here include variations in font type and size, images, color schemes and visual contrasts, and the use of visual elements to convey information.
- Hearing: These disabilities include people with partial or total hearing impairment. These people have difficulty using website content that includes sound, such as video, audio, slides, and multimedia.
- Motor: These disabilities include people who have a reduced ability to physically move their body, including those with congenital conditions and temporary impairments. These issues may prevent people from using a mouse or keyboard to navigate and interact with your website.
- Cognitive: These disabilities include conditions such as learning disorders, memory problems, attention deficit disorder, Down syndrome, and traumatic brain injuries. As you can imagine, these conditions would make it extremely difficult to navigate a website that is not accessible.
Why Does Your School’s Website Need To Be Accessible Now?
In recent years, online ADA compliance has become a matter of great concern for many schools. Although they realize on some level that they need to be compliant with ADA standards, many schools have either not yet begun to make their websites accessible or aren’t even sure where to begin the process.
If the above paragraph relates to your situation, you should know first and foremost that public schools have a legal requirement to make their website content accessible to all users, and school websites must comply with Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
What’s more, the U.S. Department of Justice has used the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), to provide a clear set of standards for website accessibility. In recent years, schools in states such as Washington, Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, and Arizona have been the subject of complaints filed with the Department of Education’s OCR.
These complaints claim that the schools’ websites are not in compliance with the WCAG guidelines. These schools were also cited for violating the ADA due to the inaccessibility of resources including digital coursework, learning management system, multimedia, and library facilities.
As long as these issues remain unresolved, school districts face not only financial penalties but also the potential for a public relations nightmare. In a recent poll of school communicators, a full half of respondents said that they don’t know whether their website is compliant with the ADA, and another quarter of them know for certain that it isn’t. With an estimated 20 percent of the U.S. population having some sort of disability, school administrators need to act fast to understand the essentials of web accessibility and bring their websites into compliance with the appropriate standards.
Whether you’re facing threats of legal action or you simply want to be proactive, taking steps toward accessibility and assessing ADA requirements is both the right thing and the legal thing to do.
What is an Accessibility Policy, and Why Do You Need One?
An accessibility policy is a strategic document that outlines the accessibility standards that you plan to meet, the scope to which these standards will apply, the timeline for implementing them, and the process of monitoring and reviewing these sites. Within this definition, the policy document can take many different forms, from a brief statement that discusses your organization’s stance and approach toward accessibility, to a formal document proving that your website meets a given set of accessibility standards.
These policies are most useful as internal documents that can be consulted by people looking for more information about accessibility. However, you can also feature them publicly on your website so that visitors understand which guidelines you comply with and how you meet them.
By proving your organization’s commitment and your intention to listen to your audience, these policies help ensure that you make continual progress toward accessibility for everyone who uses your website.
When writing your accessibility policy, you should follow three guidelines:
- Use clear, straightforward language, so that even the most non-technical employees and users can understand the meaning and implications.
- List needs hierarchically, prioritizing them in order of importance to your users.
- Define established processes for testing and quality control, so that you can be sure your website is accessible in practice. These testing processes can be taken from the WCAG 2.0 guidelines or from other standards that apply to your location.
How Can You Evaluate Your School’s Website?
To properly evaluate your school’s website, you first need to understand if it falls short of accessibility standards. For example, many school websites use PDF files, image files without appropriate descriptions, color schemes with poor visual contrast, videos without captions, and a variety of other elements that frequently cause accessibility issues.
Using stopgap measures isn’t a viable option when it comes to a true solution for website accessibility. Instead, you need to adopt a strategic approach by carefully examining your website’s content, continuously monitoring for compliance with the correct tools and technologies, and keeping yourself up to date on the knowledge and resources you need. If you don’t already do so, you must treat web accessibility as a fundamental part of proper web design, and not an afterthought to tack onto a completed website.
The first step, of course, is the school’s administration fully committing to accessibility in their quest to serve all members of the school community. With the full support of your school board and superintendent, you can proceed to an audit of your existing website, which will take stock of any and all compliance issues.
After the audit is complete, you should assemble a team to outline the process of making your website accessible. Your team should include a diverse group of people, including school administrators, website users, and key content contributors who have the technical background to create content and fix any problems that crop up.
How Can You Train Your Website Accessibility Team?
Everyone who contributes to your website needs to undergo training in website accessibility: in-house technical staff, content authors and contributors, and outside contractors working on your site’s design and content management system.
Not only do these people need to understand the technical aspects of accessibility, but they should also understand the perspectives of users with disabilities, which you can discuss with them at the beginning of the training. Also, the training should outline the relevant laws and regulations surrounding website accessibility, and the legal and ethical obligations that you have to comply with.
You’ll likely need to walk your IT staff and outside vendors through the specifics of your website’s situation regarding design, coding, and multimedia. Although your content contributors probably won’t need to know quite as much, they should still be familiar with the basics so that they understand what’s technically feasible when creating accessible content.
Finally, you should make sure that accessibility testing is built into your website design and development workflow from the very beginning. Every time that you launch a new site or introduce a major update, you must include testing to make sure that the new features are accessible and that the updates haven’t broken anything.
We understand many school administrators do not have a web accessibility policy in place, which is why an accessibility audit will help you understand your current position and help you plan and prioritize your school’s website goals.