Do You Comply with Website Accessibility Laws?

Keyboard overlayed with wheelchair handicap symbol

Recent OCR Investigations Stress Importance of School District Website Accessibility by Individuals with Disabilities

By Kathleen M. Carter

Email: kathleen.carter@mhtlaw.com

Thousands of complaints are made to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) each year regarding disability discrimination by educational institutions. Recently, a focus of those complaints has been on the accessibility (or lack thereof) of school districts’ websites for individuals with disabilities.

Specifically, complainants are alleging that websites of many school districts and educational institutions violate the law because they present barriers to users who are visually impaired, hearing impaired, cognitively impaired, and those with disabilities affecting fine motor control. In response, OCR is aggressively investigating the accessibility of such websites. Indeed, a recent press release from OCR describes just some of the settlements that have been reached recently with school entities following such OCR investigations, each of which involves extensive policy implementation and review, training, auditing, reporting, and development of a proposed corrective action plan. It goes without saying that cooperation with the OCR investigation in each instance came at a substantial cost and time for the educational entities involved.

The underlying basis of the OCR investigations is an analysis of whether public entities’ websites are in compliance with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, both of which prohibit people from being excluded from participation in, being denied the benefits of, or otherwise being subject to discrimination by public entities or recipients of financial assistance. This prohibition against discrimination applies to all programs, services, and activities, which includes a school district’s website. Examples of accessibility violations include:

  • Websites not using “alt tags,” or text descriptions, for images, which present difficulties for individuals with visual impairments using screen readers to navigate a website;
  • Use of certain text font, size, and color that makes text difficult to read for individuals with visual impairments;
  • Website content only accessible by use of a computer mouse, which presents difficulties for individuals with visual impairments or disabilities affecting fine motor control; and
  • Audio content without accurate captions and transcripts, inhibiting individuals with hearing impairments from accessing web content.

Despite a clear indication by OCR that public school districts’ websites must address these issues and otherwise be accessible to individuals with disabilities, to date there has been no final rule or regulation issued by the DOJ as to how public entities should ensure that their website is accessible to individuals with disabilities.

In the absence of official guidance and regulation, the OCR has used as its “benchmarks for measuring accessibility,” the privately developed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and Web Accessibility Initiative Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite (WAI-ARIA), both of which can be found on the Web Accessibility Initiative Website . While these guidelines are not legally binding, in the absence of official guidance, they provide the best standard by which to measure website compliance. Another important resource is the Section 508 Standards, which Federal Agencies must follow for their own web pages and which can be found on the United States Access Board Website.

School districts should take affirmative steps to ensure the accessibility of their website.  While there are numerous technical issues that need to be taken into account for website accessibility, one way to begin to identify common accessibility problems is through “WAVE,” a free online tool to evaluate website accessibility. It can be found at http://wave.webaim.org/.  Upon review and identification of any accessibility issues, school districts should work with their IT Departments to ensure not only that the website pages are accessible, but also that proper training is given to any staff who add content to the website and that additional content is accessible.