Illinois’ New Digital Accessibility Law Benefits Students with Disabilities

July 21, 2022

On August 1, 2022, an amendment to Illinois House Bill 26 (HB 26) will take effect, improving accessibility for more than 2 million students enrolled in the state’s public schools. 

The updated law requires third-party curriculum providers to meet the Level AA requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the consensus international standards for digital accessibility. 

HB 26 works in conjunction with existing requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, ensuring that private firms have to meet the same standards as public entities when providing online resources for students, parents, and school staff members. 

Why Illinois Requires WCAG Conformance for Online School Curriculum

Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is generally recognized as the leading standards for digital accessibility. Many international laws are based on WCAG’s technical criteria, including the European Accessibility Act. In a number of public statements, the United States Department of Justice has also identified WCAG Level AA conformance as a reasonable demonstration of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Educational organizations are required by law to accommodate students with disabilities, and in Illinois, schools must meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards. However, until the passage of HB 26, private-sector curriculum suppliers were not required to meet any specific technical standards. HB 26 removes the confusion by mandating WCAG compliance for all curriculum content.

Why WCAG 2.0 instead of WCAG 2.1? 

While HB26 doesn’t indicate a specific version of WCAG, the Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act (IITAA) Standards Workgroup requires conformance with WCAG 2.0. This isn’t the latest version of the standards: In 2018, the W3C officially published WCAG 2.1, which contains 18 new success criteria. The next version of WCAG, 2.2, is expected for release in late 2022.

So, why doesn’t Illinois require compliance with the latest W3C recommendations? In short, Federal agencies have adopted WCAG 2.0, and the IITAA’s requirements are aligned with federal standards. However, the IITA Standards Workgroup “encourages compliance with WCAG 2.1 and newer guidelines wherever possible.”

Related: Understanding the Differences Between WCAG 2.1 and WCAG 2.2

How WCAG Improves Accessibility in Digital Education

WCAG is a technical document, but it includes straightforward guidance for accommodating people with disabilities. The guidelines are organized by four principles: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

Each of these principles dictates success criteria, which are testable statements that aren’t specific to a certain type of technology. Following WCAG can remove many frustrating accessibility barriers, including:

  • Low-contrast text, which may impact students with vision disabilities
  • Keyboard accessibility issues, which may prevent students from completing exams or interacting with educational resources in other ways
  • Missing image alternative text (also called alt text), which can prevent screen reader users from understanding content
  • Missing or inaccurate video captions, which may impact students with hearing disabilities, students with neurocognitive conditions, and second-language learners

Needless to say, this isn’t a comprehensive list of WCAG criteria that are relevant to online education — WCAG 2.0 contains 61 success criteria, and WCAG 2.1 contains 78 criteria. 

By enforcing WCAG Level AA as a digital accessibility standard, Illinois will expand online learning resources to a much wider number of people. About 23% of adults in Illinois live with at least one disability, and the amendment to HB 26 will ensure a more inclusive environment for students throughout the state.

Related: What Is the OCR, and Why Are Schools Scrambling?

Illinois school districts must implement changes by August, 2022

Illinois Congress approved the new requirements in late 2021, establishing a compliance deadline to coincide with the 2022 school year. 

For many school districts, HB 26 won’t bring sweeping changes — but all educational institutions have a responsibility to implement accessible online learning platforms by August 1st. Additionally, schools must meet the existing requirements of the ADA and Section 504 or face penalties, which may include fines and costly remediations. 

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility provides resources to help school districts create long-term digital accessibility policies. Contact our subject matter experts for guidance or visit our Compliance Roadmap for free web accessibility tools, checklists, and self-paced training programs.

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