On May 17, 2018, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced the launch of a Website Accessibility Technical Assistance Initiative (the “Initiative”). As part of the Initiative, OCR will offer a series of general and personalized webinars to provide technical assistance directly to information technology (“IT”) professionals, including webmasters, who work with schools, state education agencies, libraries, colleges, and universities, to assist them in making their websites and online content more accessible to individuals with disabilities.

OCR is responsible for enforcing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), neither of which explicitly address accessibility to online content. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that it has not issued specific policy guidelines regarding website accessibility, OCR has taken the position that public agencies, other institutions receiving federal funds, and entities subject to Title II of ADA, whose websites do not comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) and the Web Accessibility Initiative Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite (“WAI-ARIA”), fail to comply with Section 504 and the ADA.

Subsequently, hundreds of educational institutions throughout the country have found themselves the subject of OCR investigations in response to complaints that their websites are not satisfying the requirements of these incredibly intricate guidelines. Many educational institutions have already entered into resolution agreements with OCR to resolve such complaints. These website accessibility complaints, and compliance with the resolution agreements, have placed a huge burden on the resources of both educational institutions’ and OCR alike. The announcement of the Initiative comes in tandem with OCR’s release of a new, streamlined resolution agreement (the “streamlined agreement”) designed, according to OCR representatives, to help educational institutions and OCR work together more efficiently to bring websites into compliance while providing such educational institutions with technical assistance. Recently, OCR has been allowing educational institutions who have already signed a resolution agreement the chance to switch to the streamlined agreement.

In order to gain additional insight into OCR’s expectations for meeting the requirements of these laws and complying with the WCAG and WAI-ARIA, IT professionals and other interested parties from educational institutions may want to participate in one of the prescheduled OCR webinars. So far, OCR webinars have been announced for the following dates and times:

  • May 29, 2018 at 1:00 p.m. EDT
  • June 5, 2018 at 1:00 p.m. EDT
  • June 12, 2018 at 1:00 p.m. EDT

Online registration does not appear to be available, so interested registrants are instructed to send a registration request to: OCRWebAccessTA@ed.gov. Such request must include your name, the preferred webinar you would like to attend, and contact information.

OCR has also announced that it is available for personalized webinars upon request. In advance of such personalized webinars, OCR will identify a sampling of web accessibility concerns specific to the requestor’s online programs. This opportunity seems to be geared specifically towards access to online programming. Those interested in personalized webinars are similarly instructed to send such requests to OCRWebAccessTA@ed.gov in the manner indicated above.

Shipman & Goodwin LLP will be providing its own complimentary webinar series discussing the WCAG and WAI-ARIA, providing educational institutions with the latest information regarding OCR’s approaches to addressing website accessibility complaints and providing advice on how districts can most effectively resolve such complaints. If you wish to be notified when dates are announced for this webinar series, please click here.