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Is Website Accessibility Required for Independent Schools and Private Schools?

Inclusion is accomplished with an accessible website

With all the talk in the past few years about ADA website compliance for schools, the focus has been on public school websites. Public school websites must comply with Section 508 as they receive federal funds. But what about those independent and private schools? 

Some independent schools and private schools don’t receive federal funds, so where do they fit in? They want to know if their school websites also need to be ADA compliant. It’s a great question and worthy of an answer. 

Unfortunately, I’m afraid that it might be a circuitous route to get to an obtuse legal answer because the Department of Justice has delayed their decision making and the circuit courts don’t always agree. Luckily, we’re not lawyers, so we won’t even attempt to tackle this question from that angle. But we can share what we recommend to all of our schools, regardless of their funding status. Maybe that will give you some guidelines as well.

To comply or not to comply

Yes, that is the question. The short answer is “yes.” There are several reasons why any school would benefit from making sure its school website is accessible. Let’s review a few of those:

  • It’s the smart thing to do. Designing your website with accessibility in mind means you will benefit from cleaner semantic code, you’ll enjoy improved browser compatibility, you will have a better overall design, and you may even enjoy higher search engine rankings. You will also be better prepared for technological changes moving forward.
  • You will reach a larger audience, making a difference to those with disabilities. You’ll make their lives easier by allowing access to your information that is more similar to those who are not disabled. You have the power to level the playing field, and that is a great feeling.
  • One of the less altruistic reasons to have an accessible school website is because it may keep you out of trouble. This trouble can come in the form of lawsuits (just ask Winn-Dixie, Target ($6 million in class damages + $3.7 million to National Federation of the Blind for attorney fees), or Blick, Hobby-Lobby, and Five Guys
  • The possibility of litigation doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, so why risk it? It will cost far less to create a compliant school website and keep it that way (just ask us, we do it daily) than it would be to respond to a lawsuit, even if you win. For example, in 2017 plaintiffs filed 814 federal lawsuits over inaccessible websites. This number is significantly higher than the 260 suits in 2016.

Understanding how ADA website compliance may apply to you

While your school may not fall under Title II, Section 508 requirements because you don’t receive federal funds, many courts are ruling that schools and businesses that provide services to the public fall under the Title III ADA requirements. 

What is Title III? It states:

Title III prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations (businesses that are generally open to the public and that fall into one of 12 categories listed in the ADA, such as restaurants, movie theaters, schools, day care facilities, recreation facilities, and doctors' offices) and requires newly constructed or altered places of public accommodation—as well as commercial facilities (privately owned, nonresidential facilities such as factories, warehouses, or office buildings)—to comply with the ADA Standards.”

You will notice that people with disabilities are not to be discriminated against by “places of public accommodations,” and there is a specific mention of “schools.” Is your school a place of public accommodation? The courts haven’t settled this issue yet, but as time goes by, the trending opinion seems to favor the idea that if you are open to the public for services, you are indeed a place of public accommodation. Also, the idea that a website is also a “place of public accommodation” is gaining popularity among the plaintiff’s lawyers, if the number of lawsuits filed on behalf of those with disabilities is any indication. Is it worth the risk? You decide.

One question you might ask yourself to help determine if these requirements apply to your school is: Do I have to provide wheelchair accessible ramps and restrooms because I am a “place of public accommodation?” If so, then it is likely your website will also need to be accessible.

If, on the other hand, you believe your school website doesn’t fall under ADA requirements, then be sure you also check your state requirements, as those might also apply. See State Regulations for Private Schools

What’s it gonna take to get my private school website compliant?

If you now believe that having a compliant  private or independent school website is a wise choice, you want to know what it entails, right?

Step #1: Conducting a school website audit
If your school website is responsive and you are on a system that isn’t a legacy software (meaning outdated or difficult to support), it will require you to begin by auditing your site. (If you are on legacy software, there might be technical or programming issues that will prevent you from correcting all accessibility issues. If you aren’t sure, contact your website provider to find out.) 

You typically begin your website audit by using an automated website accessibility check and following up with a manual check. The automated check will give you the big picture about the issues you need to address. But no automated check (no matter what the vendor’s salesman tells you) will catch everything, and all will give you false positives. So, don’t stop with the automated check, but it is the place to begin.

Side note: You also might want to get familiar with what a screen reader does so you can understand why you are making all these changes. (This understanding will certainly help your frame of mind.) A person with a disability, particularly the visually impaired, will use a screen reader to read your website. It is telling them what the sighted person sees. It is quite fascinating to watch. See a screen reader in action. Understanding why Alt Text, Skip Nav, or the need to navigate a website without the use of a mouse will help you see that your website compliance efforts are indeed quite useful and appreciated by those in need.

Once you’ve done your automated site review (yes, that is on every page of your website), you want to follow it up with a manual review. It takes a real person to determine whether or not your automated check missed anything or if some of those errors it found are not a problem. (Check out our blog post on conducting a DIY website audit for more details.) To get some help, give us a call. We can either design a compliant website for you and keep it that way, year in and year out, or we can audit your existing site for you.

Step #2: Creating a website management process
Once you have determined what your accessibility issues are, you will begin to fix those. This corrective action is sometimes called remediation. If you are the typical human, you are likely to go for the low-hanging fruit first. So, those fixes that your content management system (CMS) provides training for to get started might be easiest. Possibly it is adding descriptive alternative text for every image on your website. Maybe it is to assure users can navigate your website using only their keyboard. However you decide to prioritize your audit findings, here’s a list of next steps:

  1. Develop and post your school’s website accessibility policy. You should link to this policy from every page of your site, and it should describe your commitment to accountability and ways for users to report any accessibility issues they have. There should also be a way to submit a complaint or issue or a way to contact the proper individual. Many of our schools use a version of this simple policy template. Or, for a more robust version, check out the NCDAE policy example from Cornell. Consult with your school attorney or board policies, of course.
  2. Make a list of any accessibility issues and prioritize them. Then confirm with your CMS provider that their system is capable of complying with WCAG 2.0 AA standards so you can begin to correct the errors you found. If their system is not capable of creating WCAG 2.0 AA compliance, you will need to work with them to update their software—or you’ll need to find a new provider. (Pick us! Pick us!).
  3. Make a plan and work that plan. Based on what errors you found and prioritized, set a timeline for scheduling your website remediation. Whether you schedule your corrective action for a few hours a week (assuming you aren’t already under review by the Office of Civil Rights), or if you have the resources, a few hours a day to get it done quickly, be consistent. If you don’t do this work regularly, your efficiency and accuracy will suffer. Then, get started!
  4. Provide training for anyone who updates or adds content to your website. This is imperative because otherwise your hard work could be undone with the very first update someone else makes to your website. They need to know specifically what to do and why, or you’ll spend all of your time fixing website errors. If you use a CMS, you can request accessibility training on their software. You may also want to provide training on general website accessibility, the what and the why of it all. People are always more willing to accept change when they understand why they are being asked to do it.
  5. Provide training to those who create documents you link to on your website. These documents must also be compliant so that a screen reader can read them as well. This is often secretaries, head teachers, headmasters, department heads, and other staff members charged with creating documents in Word, Google Docs, PDFs, spreadsheets, etc. This should include closed-captioning and transcripts for videos. We can help with this training. Check out our low cost, online ADA document training. You will also want to gradually remediate documents currently linked to from your website that are not accessible. Need document help?

Step #3: Maintaining website compliance
Schedule regular website checks. Once you’ve done all the work to bring your website into compliance, you’ll want to be sure it stays that way. Until you are sure everyone adding updates or content to your site is correctly trained, you’ll want to do periodic spot checks. As before, start with an automated check, and follow up with manual checks. Once you are confident that your staff is doing updates correctly, you can schedule your mini-audits more infrequently.

Some states, like California, have passed laws that all state agencies conduct and post website certifications every two years. So, check your state laws on website accessibility mandates to see what may also be required.

You will also want to be sure that training for any staff doing updates continues, and consider periodic training reviews so your staff can stay on top of any accessibility changes. Do this especially if and when WCAG revises standards, which as technology advances, it is sure to do.

Step #4: Take a bow for your hard work
Once you are maintaining an accessible school website, toot your horn. Let your community know that you care about all of your users and that you provide access to all. Do a bit of public relations and marketing and provide the local media with the information about the what and why your school assures website accessibility. It’s a lot of work to achieve and maintain this level of quality, so take a bow!