Is YOUR School’s Website ADA Compliant?

Why accessibility matters and what you need to do to comply.

Moodily lit legal law concept image with Scales of justice backlit and row of law books in background

If you haven’t received a letter or notification yet that your school’s website needs to be ADA compliant, consider yourself warned. Your school needs to get its website in order or face the consequences.

School website accessibility compliance can all get a bit complicated, so for those NOT interested in the legal aspects and just want to stay out of hot water with the Office of Civil Rights (and who doesn’t) here is the layman’s version:

  • If you are a school, you are required by law to make sure your school’s website is accessible to the disabled.
  • If your school website doesn’t meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance standards, you could end up as the target of an investigation by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
  • If the OCR receives a complaint (and that can be from anyone, even if they aren’t disabled), it will result in an investigation.
  • If you fail to correct the issues in the complaint, it could result in a disability discrimination complaint being filed against your school. The OCR has the right to enforce your compliance, and you get to spend money correcting the issues, risk losing funding, or facing a lawsuit. 

Be Aware: If you’d like to avoid unwelcome attention from any of several federal agencies or organizations like the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), get your school websites, school intranet, LMS, and any online courses you offer accessibility compliant sooner rather than later. There have been as many as 350 nationwide investigations opened against schools and educational institutions recently. Don’t become one of them.

How do I keep my school website ADA compliant?

The short answer to that question is to learn what is required and take steps to get your school’s website compliant. Check out our school website accessibility tips to get started. But, in the meantime, know that there is good news and bad news about compliance. The bad news is that it isn’t easy or quick to implement if your website wasn’t designed with compliance in mind. And, once you get it there, you need to keep it compliant, and that means you train everyone who adds content to your website on compliance requirements. All information, documents, images, videos, and navigation anyone adds to your website will also need to be compliant. The good news is that by making sure your school website is accessible, you won’t be inconveniencing those without disabilities and the disabled will be able to get the information they need as well. It’s the right thing to do.

As an example, one of the 16 school website accessibility compliant areas you must apply to your school website is called alternative text or Alt Text. It’s typically also an easy one to fix:

  • Alt Text: You must make sure to include alternative text for images on your website. You do this by adding an “alt” attribute on every “img” element in the HTML code on your pages. Screen readers and talking browsers can’t translate an image, so it announces the alternative text instead. This alternative text should convey the purpose, function, or content of the image. For example:
    • If it is an active image, like a link or a button, it should describe the function or destination of the link or image;
    • If the image is not active but provides information, the text alternative should provide that same information;
    • If the image conveys no information, possibly a design element, then use alt=”” so that it indicates a “null” value to the screen reader;
    • All documents posted on your website should be compliant, which includes PDF links, documents, and videos. This means that your documents should be able to be “read” by a screen reader so those who are visually impaired can understand what the document says and usually entails tagging all titles and sub-titles in PDF and documents and add closed captioning to videos.
  • To learn about the other areas of compliance, a good resource is the WebAIM WCAG 2.0 Checklist.

What is accessibility and why does it affect my school’s website?

The law that guarantees the rights of the disabled was passed long before school websites even existed. But the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, has been expanded and revised over the years to reflect changing technology. 

Basically, the ADA requires any organization that receives federal funds to accommodate people with disabilities. This not only includes access using wheelchair ramps and beeping crosswalks but access to your school’s website. (These are issues covered in Section 504 as well as Title II ADA that apply to online services and programs, both of which apply to schools.) 

A simplified explanation is that an accessible website is one that meets the standards specified by law. It means that those with disabilities need to be able to use assistive technology to navigate your website. We will discuss the details about how to become compliant in a bit, but there are two resources available to guide web developers, or school personnel managing their websites, and they are Section 508 Standards and the more comprehensive resource called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). 

Access to information is considered a civil right. Section 508 is the federal law that mandates the use of electronic accessibility while the WCAG develops interoperable technologies to guide the Web to its full potential.  Together Section 508 and WCAG promote coherent navigation, legible presentation, complimentary colors, and a consistent layout for websites.

There are compliance benefits for both your school and your shareholders (parents, community members, students) who need information from you. Your website is available 24/7. The information you provide will be reaching everyone, regardless of their ability or disability. Having information available in one format and at one location can also save your staff time, which translates to saving your school money—all while benefiting all of your shareholders.

Jennifer MacLennan, with Gust Rosenfeld P.L.C. in Arizona, is currently working with several school districts who have received complaints, says that “All public entities are required to make sure that their websites are accessible to those with impairments—meaning that the context and content of all items on the website can be accessed by those with visual, manual or hearing impairments. I recommend that entities conduct their own internal audits based upon the accessibility standards.” 

We agree. Taking proactive steps to become compliant is the smart move.

How does assistive technology work?

To help disabled individuals to use any website, they use Assistive Technologies (AT) such as JAWS, ZoomText, Window-Eyes, VoiceOver or NVDA screen readers. These tools, often built into specialized web browsers, can automatically read text and describe the content of images for the blind. Other tools can expand the size of text or control screen color contrasts for people with impaired vision. Other assistive technologies allow deaf users to receive a translation of an audio transmission. But for assistive technologies to work, the web page must be created following either Section 508 or W3C standards.

What are the consequences if I’m not compliant?

A complaint can be filed against your school with the Federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) or the US Department of Education. Typically, enforcement is complaint driven, but each year the OCR is said to receive about 5000 complaints, although this number includes more than just assistive technology and accessible web design.

There has also been litigation, like the most well-known against the retailer Target Corporation in 2008 when the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) settled a class action lawsuit against Target to the tune of a $6-million-dollar fund against which California NFB members can make claims. Luckily, most cases against schools settle out of court. But, if a school fails to comply, the OCR may seek compliance with the federal civil rights laws. 

Currently, the OCR is working with individual states to reach settlements proactively. In June 2016 the OCR announced it had reached settlements with education organizations in seven states and one territory.  Much of the recent increased attention to this issue was triggered by a woman in Michigan who has made it her personal goal to file complaints against schools who are not compliant. According to Education Week, she has filed over 500 complaints and counting and the settlements agreed to in June were all complaints that she filed. 

Failure to provide accessible websites would mean a disability discrimination complaint filed against a school, meaning enforcement proceedings by the OCR, hefty legal costs, and your school spending money to correct any non-compliance issues. 

Next steps for school website accessibility compliance?

The recommendations by the OCR to the schools where complaints were recently filed include the following steps and are a smart place to begin:

  • Audit your school’s website and identify barriers to accessibility based on WCAG or Section 508 guidelines.
  • Make all new website content and functionality accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Create an action plan to correct any existing online barriers that include a timeline for compliance.
  • Provide website accessibility training to all personnel who provide updates or create content for the school websites.
  • Conduct scheduled, ongoing audits to assure that your school website remains accessible.
  • Develop an accessibility policy and post a notice to persons with disabilities about how to request access to online information or functionality that is currently inaccessible.

In Conclusion

Don’t wait until someone files a complaint or the OCR contacts you. Just the bad press and the hit to your school public relations is reason enough to fix your website accessibility issues now. When you’re ready to get started, check out our school website accessibility tips or download our website accessibility policy template and customize it for your school website. Or, if all of this sounds like hoops you’re not able to jump through, contact School Webmasters and this is all covered for you in our services. Yep, true story. Since our website management services include all updates, we keep your website compliant as well. Learn more about our included services for ADA compliance websites and let us know if we can help.

Bonnie Leedy, CEO