Litigation related to website accessibility has been on the rise. In 2022 alone, there were 2,387 website accessibility lawsuits filed and a 143% increase in companies that received multiple lawsuits year-over-year.
Most lawsuits begin with demand letters, which cite alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Read our guide to responding to ADA demand letters.
However, educational institutions may receive a different type of complaint. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) investigates legitimate complaints about civil rights violations, and disability discrimination certainly qualifies as a legitimate civil rights issue.
In recent years, digital tools have become more essential in academic spaces — and the OCR has stepped up digital accessibility enforcement for colleges, universities, and public schools.
If you’re looking for ways to avoid an OCR complaint letter, here’s what you need to know.
What accessibility issues can lead to an OCR complaint?
The OCR is tasked with ensuring equal access to education, which means enforcing all federal civil rights laws that apply to schools. That includes (but is not limited to):
- Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires schools to provide reasonable accommodations (including auxiliary aids) to students with disabilities.
- Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of disability.
The OCR may also file complaints for non-compliance with other laws such as the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin.
For the purposes of this article, however, we’re focusing on the Office’s accessibility requirements.
Does the OCR publish technical standards for educators?
The ADA requires schools to make digital resources accessible for all students, but it doesn’t contain specific technical criteria for compliance. That may change in the near future, as the Department of Justice is considering a new rule that would clarify Title II ADA requirements.
However, the OCR has released substantial guidance for digital accessibility. That includes a brief webinar on online education and website accessibility, along with fact sheets, guidance documents, and data summaries. You can review those resources on the OCR’s Digital Accessibility page.
OCR digital accessibility policies generally follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standards for digital accessibility (and the technical framework for the government’s own Section 508 standards).
Below, we’ll review a few common issues that may result in complaints — but the important takeaway is that every institution should audit content against WCAG.
OCR Complaint Letters for Web Accessibility Issues
School websites must be accessible for all users, including those who use screen readers and other assistive technologies (AT).
Screen reader accessibility has been frequently cited in OCR cases. Screen reader software outputs text as audio or braille; the user typically navigates the content with a keyboard. If digital content isn’t designed for screen readers — or written with appropriate markup — these users may be left out.
OCR complaint letters often reference issues that impact screen reader users:
- Missing alternative text (also called alt text) for images and other non-text content.
- Poor keyboard support, which may prevent students from accessing resources or navigating web content.
- “Empty" hyperlinks, which are links that do not have text describing the function of the link.
- Missing or redundant page titles, which are important for navigation.
- Missing semantic markup for lists, subheadings, and other elements.
However, web accessibility isn’t just for people with low vision. Other accessibility issues can impact students with disabilities that affect their hearing, mobility, or cognition:
- Videos that don’t have accurate captions or transcripts.
- Unnecessary time limits, which can impact users who need more time to complete processes.
- Improper use of semantic markup, which may prevent assistive technologies from working predictably.
- Human verification mechanisms like CAPTCHA that require a certain type of sensory perception.
You can avoid these issues by auditing your website and e-learning portals against the Level A/AA standards of WCAG. While the federal government currently uses WCAG 2.0, we recommend testing content against the latest version (currently, WCAG 2.1), which may help to ensure compliance with future laws and OCR guidance.
Other Common Types of OCR Complaints
E-learning platforms and other digital tools must be accessible (or, if a specific tool cannot be made accessible, students and/or parents must be provided with auxiliary aids that afford equal access to those resources).
- PDFs and other web-delivered documents.
- Learning management systems.
- Social student portals.
- Videos, slideshows, and other multimedia presentations.
Digital accessibility cannot be an afterthought — otherwise, the OCR will step in to resolve the issue.
In 2021, the OCR enforced a complaint against the Arlington Public School district in Virginia (PDF), which alleged accessibility issues with PDFs and other learning resources. Later that year, the OCR resolved a complaint against Miami Dade College (PDF), which alleged that college’s email blasts were not accessible for screen reader users.
Start building a plan for OCR compliance
Every educational institution should have a robust accessibility strategy. Waiting for an OCR complaint is not an option; resolving accessibility issues after-the-fact can be expensive, and building inclusive content ensures that more students can access vital resources.
To start developing your digital compliance strategy, send us a message to connect with an expert. For additional resources, visit our Compliance Roadmap.