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Website Accessibility: Ten Things School Districts Should Know

This week, I wrote an article about a special education advocate in Michigan who has been diligently filing complaints with the U.S. Department of Education against school districts that have websites which are inaccessible to people with disabilities. If your district hasn't already been subject to such a complaint, you may be next—here's what you need to know to proactively address such issues.

What is website accessibility?

Simply put, website accessibility means that "people with disabilities can access the web." That definition comes from the Web Accessibility Initiative, a project of the international standards group called the World Wide Web Consortium.

But, just as accessibility features in the real world have broad use among people without disabilities—think curb cuts, wheelchair ramps and closed captioning—web accessibility features have potential utility for people without disabilities as well. For example, websites that offer text alternatives to images are great for people who have low-speed internet connections. 

Perkins Solutions, a division of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., provides accessibility consulting services to private and public agencies. This short video—note its accessibility features, such as descriptions of images and use of captioning—gives an example of how an inaccessible website is experienced by a blind user. Inaccessible websites also present barriers to users who do not use pointing devices like a mouse, or who cannot hear embedded videos. 

Why does website accessibility matter? We've never heard any complaints, and we comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. 

Public entities cannot discriminate against people with disabilities in their programs or activities. That has been interpreted to include websites, in the same way that public facilities must be accessible to wheelchairs—even if a school district does not enroll any students who use wheelchairs.  And accessibility means more than just the parts of a district website that are "public-facing" or accessible by students or families. Districts have seen accessibility concerns raised about internal web interfaces as well. These might include internal systems that teachers use to submit grades, or that are accessed by potential job applicants. 

The issue has particular relevance right now, as the Education Department just closed its public comment period for proposed regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act. Those proposed regulations, which will guide how the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act is implemented, currently say that school districts and state boards of education can use their websites to provide public notice for different important things, such as school report cards or proposed changes to policy. If those notices can't be read by a portion of the relevant audience, that's a problem. Advocates would like to see specific accessibility language in those regulations. 

What are the legal requirements for accessibility?

The U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights has been monitoring website accessibility through its power to enforce Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both of those acts together prohibit discrimination by public entities and entities that receive federal funding.

Back in 2010, the office for civil rights sent a letter "Dear Colleague" letter to colleges and universities, letting them know what their accessibility obligations were to college students. About a year later, in May 2011, OCR followed up with a similar document that essentially said that it meant elementary and secondary institutions, too—not just colleges and universities. Here are links to the letter on electronic book readers and other emerging technologies and an accompanying "Frequently Asked Questions" document. 

What has the office for civil rights been doing to enforce website accessibility?  

As of July 2016, OCR has 227 investigations open involving the issue of accessibility of online courses, distance learning, websites and remote applications. The result of many of those investigations are consent agreements with schools, districts, and states to fix their websites. Those agreements have pointed toward two international standards as a framework to follow. One is called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and the second is a set of tools designed to make today's more complex web interfaces usable for all. (Those tools are known by the tongue-twisting name of Web Accessibility Initiative Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite, or WAI-ARIA.) 

International standards? Don't we have any U.S. standards or guidelines on website accessibility?

They're coming, but they are taking a very long time. For example, in 2010, the Department of Justice said that it was interested in putting out rules on website accessibility. It solicited comments from the field about what those rules should say. Years passed. In April, instead of releasing those proposed rules, the Justice Department withdrew them and said it is seeking more detailed public comment on website and technology accessibility, in light of technological advances over the past six years.

On another front, the U.S. Access Board is in the process of revising Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which deals with information and communications technology in federal procurement. Public comments on those proposed accessibility rules were due at the end of May 2015, but the so-called "ICT Refresh" has not yet arrived.

How have districts responded to OCR's enforcement actions?

That is different from district to district. A blind parent in Seattle, in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind, sued the district over its inaccessible website, and the district estimated that it would cost between $665,400 and $815,400 to fix the problems, train staff, pay the lawyers and pay $5,000 in damages to the parent.

I spoke to administrators in the Juneau, Alaska, and Santa Fe, N.M., districts, two of several entities that entered into settlement agreements in June with the Education Department over website accessibility. Both of those districts said that they were already in the process of getting new web vendors, so they didn't anticipate substantial additional costs.

"We kind of welcomed it because we are in the process of completely moving our website platform. It actually comes at a really good time for us at a district," said Ami S. Jaeger, Santa Fe's general counsel. "It has helped us make our transition to the new site even better."

How do I know if I have an accessible website?

The non-profit organization WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind), based at Utah State University in Logan, has tools and checklists that web developers can use to check websites for accessibility. One of them is WAVE, a web accessibility evaluation tool that allows users to put in their website's address and get an immediate sense of accessibility issues. This accompanying website, Identifying Web Accessibility Issues, explains how WAVE works. 

Non-technical people can use WAVE as well, but the tool doesn't replace an evaluation by an accessibility expert, said Cyndi Rowland, WebAIM's executive director.

The National Center on Disability and Access to Education has also created some nifty "cheat sheets" for how to ensure accessibility for commonly used programs such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. They're intended for people who have already been through training on the topic, but they're still useful for novices.

Whose responsibility is it to maintain accessibility?

Ultimately, it is a school district's responsibility to maintain a site, Rowland said.  But individual people share in that responsibility as well. Is a school secretary uploading a scanned version of a school lunch menu that can't be read by a screen reader? Is a history teacher posting inaccessible PowerPoint presentations as study guides for her students? These people may not think of themselves as web "content creators," but they are. All those are issues that districts have to consider, Rowland said. 

How do I get ahead of the curve on website accessibility?

Start off by talking to the public about accessibility issues, said Brian Landrigan, director of sales and marketing for the Paciello Group, a website accessibility consulting firm. "Do outreach to people. Ask them, 'How is our website, can you use it, do you have problems with it?' It's common practice for corporations to do usability testing. Why wouldn't a school website do the same thing?" he said.

That will help identify problems with accessibility, but will also identify other problems that might not be on a district's radar screen, such as if a person is struggling to load a site on a tablet, or if the site is too bandwidth-heavy for a user who does not have access to high-speed internet.

Rowland said that districts should also explicitly require that accessibility be a requirement when they're seeking website vendors, for example. "A lot of time what we hear from vendors is that they have limited development dollars. They put those dollars where their clients are screaming the most," she said. And to this point, districts have generally not been screaming about accessibility. 

What shouldn't I do first?

Interestingly, Landrigan—who works for an accessibility consulting firm—said that districts should not rush to throw money at consultants, expect them to fix everything, and think that the problem is solved. "My personal opinion is that sets the school district up for a huge bill in consulting services for not a lot of return," he said.

Instead of looking at this district by district, Landrigan believes states should take the lead in helping their school districts revamp sites to comply with accessibility guidelines. 

Rowland offered similar advice. Accessibility is an ongoing process that needs to considered every time something new is added to a website. But "it is never too late to get started," she said. "Small steps are still steps. If districts start paying attention to these things, maybe they can get ahead of the curve."

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