Schools, school districts, and departments of education across the country are scrambling to avoid conflicts with the OCR. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is the organization within U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) tasked with ensuring access to education by enforcing civil rights. Essentially, the OCR prohibits discrimination by schools on the basis of disability, race, sex, national origin, color, or age.
Schools are rushing to meet website accessibility guidelines and compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) rules after a spate of recent investigations, complaints, and lawsuits. The OCR began inquiries after receiving reports that some schools and school districts had websites that were difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to use. Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require public school websites and online services to be ADA compliant.
In 2016, the OCR announced settlements with schools and other educational organizations across seven states and one territory as a result of the investigations. OCR officials found the school websites frequently had a few key problem areas:
- Videos without captions, which are inaccessible to deaf users.
- Sections of the website that can only be accessed using a mouse, which are problematic for blind users or those with fine motor control disabilities.
- Text color combinations that are difficult for people with low vision to differentiate.
The schools and districts agreed to make the websites accessible by completing a range of actions:
- Performing a thorough accessibility audit of online services and content.
- Creating policies to make sure all new content will be accessible by users with disabilities.
- Taking positive steps to remove all barriers to full access for users with disabilities.
A challenge schools face is first determining what makes a website fully compliant with accessibility requirements. Many educational organizations undertake an accessibility audit to determine where their current website might be falling short. In early 2017, the U.S. government adopted a standard for federal agency websites called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0 AA). Industry observers believe the Department of Justice will require private and public schools to adopt the same standards for their websites. In lieu of a formal decision, courts are using WCAG 2.0 AA as the standard for web accessibility.
Areas to Review
Many schools who receive notice of standards violations have no idea why. Here are some questions to ask your website professional to identify what areas you might need to work on:
- Is there enough color contrast in text and other elements for visually impaired users to see them easily?
- Can a user get around the site by using only the arrow and tab keys?
- Are PDF files optimized forWCAG compliance?
- Do all images have alt tags? Alt tags are text descriptions of an image relayed to disabled users through text-to-speech software or screen readers, so all users can understand what the image is about, even if they can't see it. This is also useful for users with slow internet connections who have turned off images.
By the middle of 2016, the OCR had launched more than 224 investigations into web accessibility cases involving websites, remote apps, distance learning, and online course offerings. The settlements mentioned earlier resulted in the formation of the WCAG 2.0 AA and updated web tools for webmasters and site designers called the Website Accessibility Initiative Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite (WAI-ARIA).
Web accessibility is a serious concern for schools and educational organizations. Reviewing these standards and your implementation plan creates an opportunity to upgrade your technology and provide better service for all students.