How Your Reaction to ADA Compliance Affects Your Public Relations

How ADA affects your school public relations

I won’t sugarcoat this—making and keeping your school website ADA compliant is difficult! 

To begin, WCAG 2.0 contains four categories with sixteen guidelines and over seventy rules… I mean, “success criteria.” If you’re building or redesigning your school website, you need to keep accessibility in mind as you consider layout, text, images, and other design features. Then, if you are managing your website in-house with a content management system (CMS), you need training on the accessibility features of that system. With each update, you will need to remember to apply the features. Finally, any member of your staff who will be posting or updating the website will also require training and quality checks to ensure they are applying the accessibility functions with every update. 

And it’s not just your website you need to worry about either. Schools have hundreds, even thousands, of documents, all of which must also comply with ADA requirements. Everything from your lunch menu to your student handbook to your board of education minutes needs to be accessible.

We asked our ADA compliance guru, Kelly Childs, to tell us the average time it takes to remediate a document. Her response? “It’s really hard to say because each document is very different. I would say, a simple document with only text may take less than ten minutes; however, a complex document may take an hour for one page.” 

Why does it take so long? Kelly says, “There are so many factors that go into it such as the document format, whether or not it is scanned, and what type of elements (headers, tables, graphics, etc.) are on the page. A super simple page could take five minutes or less, but that is more the exception than the standard.”

We’ve blogged previously about the legal requirements of website accessibly and how to make your school website ADA compliant. We’ve even provided full website accessibility services to make things easy for our clients. But there is one thing we haven’t talked about yet in all this—and that is the public relations aspect of ADA compliance. 

School PR and Website Accessibility

School public relations can be defined as the development and maintenance of a favorable public image for your school. Your school culture, customer service, reputation, brand, and communications all contribute to your PR. 

So why does having an ADA compliant school website matter? 

What is your school mission, vision, or values? I’ll wager there is something in there about every student, or all students, or each student. Am I right? ADA compliance is about making sure you truly meet the needs of each student. While you may already do an outstanding job of that in the classroom, consider that the regulations surrounding school website accessibility ensure that the parents of every student have equal access to any information and communication your school provides to help them be involved and engaged in the education of their child. 

While we hope that negative consequences aren’t your primary motivating factor, we cannot ignore that it does play an important role in considering website accessibility and your school public relations. Imagine the PR nightmare your school might face if the Office of Civil Rights comes knocking on your door for accessibility negligence. That would send a message that your school doesn’t care about making your communications accessible to individuals with disabilities. Even if that’s not the case, the media loves a good “David and Goliath” story, and if it’s your school versus the disabled—you can guarantee the media won’t be kind.

Rather than moan and groan over the amount of work ADA compliance entails, try a more positive outlook: Website accessibility is an opportunity to improve your public relations. It is a chance to show your community that you care, that truly every individual is important to your school, and it demonstrates that your school is willing to take those extra steps to make sure every student has every opportunity to succeed. 

For these reasons, we flinch when we hear (understandably) frustrated administrators say things like, “This is too hard. We just won’t have a website!” Before you do your community the disservice, let’s look at the four most common reactions we hear from school administrators and how that solution would affect your school public relations.

1. “We just won’t have a website!”

This is perhaps the most dramatic of reactions to ADA compliance. When faced with the complexities of maintaining accessible school websites according to accessibility standards, many schools are ready to throw in the towel on the whole thing. While this may seem like a tempting, reasonable solution from an administrative standpoint, from a PR perspective, it’s the worst possible solution.  

Your school website is your primary online communications channel. And due to current media trends, we can say your website actually is your main communications channel, period. 

Everything needs to be online and easily accessible in this day and age. For everyone. Consider the fact that as many as one in five of your audience (students, parents, or community members) requires special technology, tools, or modifications to access information online. If your target audience can’t find what they are looking for within three to five clicks on a mouse, chances are they will become frustrated and either give up or click on the “contact us” link and make a call. Maintaining an organized, useful online presence for your school is not a luxury—it is a necessity. 

2. “Instead of a website, we’ll just use social media.”

Sometimes administrators think that instead of the website, they will just use social media for their school marketing and communication needs. Again, this is not a feasible solution. First of all, social platforms do not currently adhere to accessibility regulations. Secondly, your school does not own the social media platform. Owning your main platform of “online real estate” is essential for marketing, public relations, and the survival of your school or district in the long run. 

Businesses recently learned this valuable lesson as Facebook made some algorithm changes in past weeks. The abbreviated version is that company posts would become less visible to followers’ news feeds. If businesses wish to reach a larger audience, Facebook requires them to pay to “boost” posts. The opportunity of “organic reach” or viral posts for businesses has plummeted. While schools don’t quite face the same dilemma on social platforms (yet), this does illustrate the importance of maintaining control over your main online communications channel. 

3. “We’ll just take down all our PDFs.”

Again, this may seem like a simple solution to a complex issue; however, let me tell you a true story. One Thursday I attended a webinar where the presenter said that one of their schools had 187 PDFs on its website, all of which needed to be made accessible (that process is called “remediation”). Rather than remediate the PDFs, they removed them saying they would “put them back up one at a time as parents complain.” 

This is the attitude of a frustrated educator dealing with the problem, rather than a communications person dealing with a solution. Can you imagine the burden such an action would place on your staff when parents can no longer find lunch menus, student handbooks, supply lists, and enrollment forms? 

As a PR person, that phrase “as parents complain” really bothered me. No school actually wants parents to complain. Don’t we complain about parents complaining? Don’t we create policies and manage customer service around keeping our parents and community happy? We don’t want complaints! It’s not good PR. 

Please remember, ADA is about accessibility! Making things less accessible to everyone is not the solution here.

4. “Instead of posting documents, we’ll just add a page to the website.”

Documents are one of the most time-consuming elements of ADA compliance, and schools have an abundance of documents! We understand the impulse to create pages instead of documents, but in the long run, it is not a practical solution. 

Websites are meant to be dynamic. That’s why keeping your website updated is such a big deal. Sometimes, schools are required to keep an archive of documents (such as board of education minutes) that could go back years. Creating pages on a website, rather than linking to a document or PDF, starts to take up a lot of room. The last thing you want is for your school website to become bloated with too much content and cumbersome to navigate.

A dynamic, easy to navigate website is a powerful public relations tool. 

Consider also that your parents may want to save a form, schedule, or list. For example, a parent may want to print the lunch menu and stick it to the refrigerator for easy reference. Printing from a website is a pain, unless your website is designed for “printer friendly” versions. If this is your chosen approach to accessibility, your school will need to make sure every website page has a printer friendly version. Realistically, doing so is a lot of work and an extra expense for your web development team.

One possible solution to your document challenge is to use Google Drive. Although Google doesn’t offer the same accessibility options as other programs like Adobe PDF, it is an accessible option for your school documents. Keep in mind that for your Google Docs and Sheets to be accessible, you must apply all the accessibility functions available in the program. And when you export a Google Doc to a PDF, Microsoft Word, or another program, there are additional accessibility features you will need to apply. But for forms and documents that you need on your website, a link to a Google Doc is a feasible solution.

ADA Compliance is Worth It

So what is the solution (the only solution, really) to ADA compliance? Just do it and do it right. It takes a lot of time, but we promise you it’s worth it. It’s worth saving your school the legal hassle. And it’s worth it for your public relations. 

Have you ever come in on a project that was started without you or inherited a task that was a mess from top to bottom? That is what has happened with ADA compliance coming on the scene of school websites. It’s a mess getting started, but as you work on one aspect of clean up at a time, you’ll make it through. 

Get Started

Step 1: Create an ADA policy for the website.

Step 2: Start with a website audit and work to make the website itself ADA compliant one step at a time. 

Step 3: Begin to remediate your attachments, documents, and videos. 

A word of caution: You know how frustrating it is to clean up a room in the house only to have your kids come in like a tornado and undo all your hard work, right? Or maybe at least you know what it’s like to clean up a mess in the kitchen only to have someone come in with a pile of dirty dishes, flop them in the sink, and march off. Don’t let that be your experience with ADA compliance, especially where your website is concerned. 

Worrying that once it is compliant, your hard work may be undone is a valid concern with content management systems (CMS). With so many people making updates to your website, someone is bound to throw something out of compliance. And with ADA compliance, it’s all or none—meaning, if just one thing is off, your whole website is considered inaccessible. 

The OCR requires schools to have an action plan to bring their websites into compliance. The most straightforward action plan to managing school website ADA compliance is to hire School Webmasters. Not only will we build an ADA compliant website, but we’ll keep it that way. And for your documents? We offer free accessibility training for your faculty and staff and document remediation for a quote.

Regarding School Webmasters’ ADA services, the director of public relations and marketing at Tolleson Union High School District, Joseph Ortiz, says, “School Webmasters has been very helpful. The best thing has been the open and direct contact with staff members who can help us and provide direction. [School webmasters] is very easy to work with and we rely on their expertise in this area. We feel very supported.” 

Let us know how we can support you with this heavy task of ADA compliance. We’re happy to help! 

Katie Brooks, School Public Relations Specialist