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Access Denied? School Website Accessibility and Section 504 Compliance

Complaints continue to be filed with the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) against school districts claiming that their websites are inaccessible to people with disabilities under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  In order to meet Section 504 compliance, public schools must ensure that their websites are accessible to people with disabilities, both students and non-students, in such a manner that enables a person with a disability to navigate and interact with a website to the same extent that a person without disabilities can.   Failure to provide website accessibility in such a manner can amount to a violation of federal law.

The United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) is expected to revise the ADA regulations in the near future to require state and local government websites to adhere to accessibility requirements.  While these regulations should provide clarity to school districts across the nation, we do not advise Pennsylvania school districts to wait for these rules before taking action to make sure their websites meet OCR approved accessibility standards and Section 504 compliance.  Waiting runs the risk of a complaint being filed in the meantime with OCR, and an investigation being conducted as a result.  We recommend that school districts be proactive by adhering to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (“WCAG”) Level AA, which are the most commonly accepted standards for accessibility.  In fact, OCR has cited these guidelines as a resource for school districts in recent resolution agreements.  Furthermore, the DOJ may require compliance with WCAG 2.0 Level AA in the soon-to-be revised regulations.  The guidelines identify four standards that serve as the foundation to ensuring website accessibility:

  1. Perceivable:  The ability to see and/or hear the web content.
  2. Operable: The ability to utilize a website’s functionability from a keyboard, including providing users enough time to read and use content, designing the content in a manner that is not likely to induce seizures, and providing a means to help users navigate and find content.
  3. Understandable:  The ability to make text content readable and understandable, to make sure Web pages appear and operate in predictable ways, and to help users avoid and correct mistakes.
  4. Robust:  The ability to maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.

Pending DOJ’s revised regulations, OCR’s Resolution Agreements with school districts across the county provide helpful guidance about OCR’s expectations for districts.  They are as follows:

  • Develop a policy and procedures for website accessibility;
  • Conduct annual training for all staff members responsible for uploading or adding content, including through individual teacher pages, to the district websites; and
  • Perform an audit of your own website.

While some of these measures could be very expensive, especially an audit, there are affordable evaluation tools available online to help identify problematic areas and, hopefully, avoid a formal complaint in the first place.  Based on OCR settlements with eleven (11) education organizations this summer 2016, some of the most common issues hindering accessibility were:  1) videos without closed captions; 2) images without text descriptions, or “alt tags”; and 3) poor color contrasts for text.

Website accessibility complaints are not going away.  It is best to be proactive and have your school district’s technology coordinator conduct an internal investigation to identify any deficiencies and determine which staff members would require training on accessibility issues.  While we understand that website accessibility and Section 504 compliance are evolving legal concerns, taking the right steps now can help alleviate bigger problems down the road.  If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact the School Group at Stock and Leader.

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Stock and Leader strives to maintain an accessible website compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.