Website accessibility for school districts, colleges and universities has been under greater scrutiny in recent months. Hundreds of complaints have been filed with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) against school districts with websites that are inaccessible to the disabled. School websites must cater to a large population: students, parents and guardians, staff and administration. Typically, in a representative U.S. population, about 20% of users will have disabilities including vision, hearing, cognitive, mobility or other limitations. It is estimated that 8.5% will have a disability that interferes with computer use.


Accessibility Person Working at Computer

Legal Requirements for Accessibility

Schools are required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which requires that any organization, public or private, provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities to access information, goods, or services. Though the ADA does not specifically mention websites, it is often invoked in lawsuits about internet accessibility. Title II of the ADA relates to state and local government institutions, while Title III relates to private businesses, including schools, that serve the public. Also pertinent are Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a disability anti-discrimination law that applies to any organization that accepts federal funding.

OCR Complaint and Investigation Process

Upon receiving a complaint about a school’s website, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) may elect to open an investigation. The school, once notified, will generally have 30 days to present a plan to address the identified accessibility issues based on a technical standards, such as WCAG 2.0 and WAI-ARIA. Within the same 30 days, the school must appoint a Web Accessibility Coordinator who will monitor all content, including content from third parties, and provide training to content creators for the site.

Once your school’s plan is accepted, you must post a statement of accessibility on your website and notify all constituents (parents, students, staff, etc.) in writing within 60 days.

Within 6 months of acceptance of the accessibility plan, you are required to conduct an audit of your site and prepare a timeline for resolving all issues. The corrective work must begin within 30 days and be complete within this six month period.

Be Proactive about Accessibility

If you haven’t been served with a complaint yet, there is much you can do to avoid an investigation. Pre-emptive steps would include doing a site audit for code, design and content issues. For a quick sense of whether your site has accessibility issues, try the WebAIM WAVE tool. Though not a substitute for a complete accessibility audit, it’s a good initial indicator. With a site audit report in hand you can start to prioritize the initiatives and start taking steps toward meeting site accessibility standards.

Assessing your Site’s Accessibility

The results of a full accessibility site audit will evaluate code, design and content issues. Some of the issues that will come to light will include the following:

  • Is the site navigable by keyboard alone for those that cannot use a mouse?
  • Are there aspects of your site that are accessed on hover only, such as a menu dropdown?
  • Has alt-text included for content-related images?
  • Is multimedia content captioned?
  • Is the contrast between text and a colored background or image adequate for those with low vision? Or those who are color-blind?
  • Can the font size be increased using native browser functionality?

If your site is current and on a modern CMS, you may elect to make accessibility improvements to your existing site. If not, you may want to compile a checklist of requirements to include in your next site redesign. When the time comes to have the new site designed and built, be sure that your team of designers and developers is selected for their expertise with accessibility issues.

An accessible site template is not enough, however. Your content creation team will need training in accessibility issues such as: transcripts for videos, alt-text for images that are pertinent to the content, and scanned files are not favored as they cannot be accessed by screen readers.

Achieving Usable Accessibility

When it comes to accessibility simply following technical standards, like WCAG 2.0, to the letter may not necessarily result in usable accessibility for your users. Optimizing functional accessibility requires judgement and expertise from your website development team. The more they know about your audiences and objectives the better the result will be.

Are your users primarily vision-impaired? Hearing-impaired? Or are cognitive limitations more prevalent? Which screen-readers or accessibility devices do they utilize? Which browsers, operating systems and devices do they use most often? When it comes to optimizing for certain technologies for a prevalent set of users the more we know about them, the better their needs can accommodated.