chalkboardlaptoppearThere is immense value in maintaining a website for your educational agency. Indeed, websites and web-based applications are intended to provide efficient and accessible information to the public, who rely on the information posted on such websites for a multitude of reasons. However, care must be taken to assure that this resource complies with federal law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”). Recently, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has prioritized an accessibility compliance effort and has indicated that school districts have an ongoing obligation to ensure website accessibility. The DOJ is expected to fully develop regulations and rules regarding website accessibility by 2018.

The United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) has recently taken a cue from the Department of Justice by commencing approximately 350 administrative investigations nationwide. These investigations are intended to determine whether educational agencies’ websites fully comply with Title II of the ADA and Section 504. These laws require school districts to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to services, activities, and programs. OCR has adopted the position that this equal access requirement applies to school districts’ websites.

Recent discussions with investigators at OCR confirm that this push for website accessibility is a new area of increased attention. Despite this focus, OCR has not yet formulated its own guidance or standards. Nevertheless, the investigations have largely centered on whether the school districts’ websites are accessible to individuals with visual and hearing impairments, among other disabilities. In a recent example, OCR conducted an investigation in connection with the Michigan Department of Education’s websites, finding in part that videos and PDF documents were incompatible with screen reader programs that convert text to speech. The Michigan Department of Education eventually resolved the complaint through an agreement under which it will be required to caption hundreds of videos and convert thousands of documents to more accessible formats.

OCR undertook a similar investigation related to a district’s website in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Again, the concerns presented centered on accessibility for individuals with visual impairments. As part of the resolution agreement, the district assessed its website in an effort to identify and correct inaccessible material. Additionally, the district agreed to provide website accessibility training to appropriate employees and implement an accessibility policy.

Despite the current lack of agency guidance, the following list, gleaned from resolution agreements and industry standards, provides some common avenues to increase website accessibility:

  • Designation of an accessibility coordinator to monitor compliance;
  • Implementation of accessibility audits of technologies and services provided;
  • Revision of vendor agreements to require vendors to provide data regarding their products’ compliance;
  • Captioning of photographs to assist individuals with visual impairments who use text-to-speech programs. Also known as alt text, appropriate captions assist screen readers in understanding the message conveyed by the images on the page;
  • Closed captioning of videos to assist individuals with hearing impairments;
  • Accurately descriptive labeling of form fields.

OCR has indicated that it has utilized at least one tool to assist in determining the accessibility status of websites it is investigating. The tool, known as the WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool, is available for free online and may assist educational agencies in examining their own websites.

These investigations should prompt all educational institutions to review their own web-based applications and websites with an eye toward ensuring accessibility for all and minimizing susceptibility to investigation and litigation.