Leading Off: Compliance is Not a Dirty Word: The What, Why and How of ADA-Compliant Websites

Tom Scheidel
Tom Scheidel

As educational institutions move more information online, they must ensure that all students, parents, community members and staff can access the content of their websites. This means complying with the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Over the last few years, hundreds of school districts have been cited for non-compliance by the Office of Civil Rights.

Whether your district has been targeted or not, there are some key points you should know about the law, the complaint process, recent changes in OCR enforcement and making your website user friendly for everyone.

A Perspective on ADA Compliance

While this may seem like a relatively new issue, the ADA was passed by Congress in 1990. This comprehensive civil rights law addresses the needs of people with disabilities by prohibiting discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations and telecommunications. Although the legislation predates the widespread use of the internet, the current requirements are spelled out in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (also known as WCAG 2.1).

Twenty-five years after the law was adopted, Marcy Lipsett, a disability advocate from the Detroit area, noticed that education websites were still not in compliance. So, she started filing complaints with OCR. The first two were against the Michigan Department of Education and the University of Michigan. She went on to file more than 2,400 complaints against schools, school districts, state education departments and other public agencies nationwide. And she has not been alone. Other districts also have been the target of complaints by groups and individuals who contended that websites did not allow everyone to access all information.

Agreements with OCR

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If your school district received an early complaint, you probably entered into an agreement with OCR that detailed the steps to bring your website into compliance.

If you received your complaint more recently, the OCR agreement was more of a boilerplate document. Because of the volume of complaints, some districts have submitted their agreements and are still waiting for OCR to sign off on them. In many cases, deadlines have passed with no communication back to the district from OCR.

Since more than 10 percent of the OCR caseload resulted from complaints filed by Lipsett and her group, OCR has changed its policy. It now has the option of denying a complaint from a “serial complainant.” They do not check on the viability of the complaint itself.

Those currently working under an agreement with OCR are still bound by that agreement. However, if there has been a complaint filed, but no agreement, some of those complaints are being dismissed. If your district hasn’t had a complaint filed yet, you may think you’re in the clear. But, you’re not. The ADA is still the law, and school website compliance is mandatory.

Enforcement to Assistance

Mary Lou Mobley, a lawyer from the Office of Civil Rights, detailed what OCR is doing now that their procedures have been changed. According to Mobley, OCR is moving away from enforcement and more toward helping districts remove common barriers to access.

They break down the website user groups this way:

  • Visually impaired — someone who needs to use a screen reader and doesn’t use a mouse to navigate a website.
  • Hearing impaired — someone who needs captions and transcripts.
  • Mobility impaired — someone who can’t use a mouse and for whom keyboard access is critical.
  • Seizure disorder — flash rate.

Checking Websites

To check a website for these barriers, many districts are using website governance tools such as those from Siteimprove or Monsido. Some website providers such as Blackboard and Foxbright have modules that let you know if your content is compliant. The WAVE Accessibility Evaluation Tool is a service recommended by OCR. It’s free, but it evaluates only one page at a time. Needless to say, it can take quite a while to assess an entire site this way.

While these tools are valuable, it’s enlightening to watch someone with a disability go through your website. Two years ago, our district content editor group watched as a woman who is blind used a screen reader to navigate our website. We learned that half of our site was not accessible. It turns out that screen readers can’t read drop-down menus, and many of our pages could only be accessed that way.

If you haven’t had that experience, there are some video examples on the internet of people who have disabilities using a screen reader. A very good one comes from Salt Lake Community College.

For people who are hearing impaired, it is necessary to close caption the videos on your site. Facebook and YouTube offer free services, but the accuracy may be less than ideal and require manual editing. If you use a site like Vimeo to host your videos, there are paid services available. These are usually more accurate, but they vary in cost. Rev.com provides excellent quality and quick turnaround at a reasonable price.

Third-party Sites

Another accessibility concern is third-party sites. These are sites that your district site links to, but you don’t control. According to the OCR, if the information is being provided as part of the district’s educational programming, then the district must ensure it is accessible. If it is a link to additional or related resources that are not vital to the district’s programming, then the creator or host of the site has responsibility for compliance.

The guidance is similar when it comes to social media. Your district is responsible for your information, but not the accessibility of the social media site.

Making Accessibility a Priority

Despite your best efforts, you still may have some content that is not accessible. Provide your users with an easy way, usually an email link, to point out the problem to you and request their desired content.

Finally, create a plan for accessibility and set priorities for what to address. Consider criteria such as what pages are most visited, which pages are the most important, and which pages are legally required to be on your site, even if no one visits them.

Ultimate Goal

Remember, when building an accessible website, your goal shouldn’t be for zero errors on your accessibility checker. Your goal should be effective communication for all.

If you have questions on accessibility and legal requirements, you can contact OCRWebAccessTA@ED.gov.


Author Tom Scheidel is public information coordinator for Allegan (Mich.) Area Educational Service Agency and NSPRA Mideast Region Vice President. Contact him at tscheidel@alleganaesa.org.