We use computers at school, at work, and at home. Every day, we log on to websites to conduct research, to shop, to check the news, to listen to music, and even to watch shows and movies. The internet has become an indispensable tool for nearly every facet of life.
When most people log onto a website, they take for granted their ability to read a webpage, navigate links, click through web-content, and consume media. Yet, for many people, parts of the web are inaccessible and unusable. Blind individuals, individuals with low vision, individuals with limited manual dexterity, and individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing are adversely impacted by websites that are either incompatible with assistive technology or that lack features that enable these individuals to access and comprehend the website. For these individuals, using the internet can be a cumbersome, clumsy, and nearly impossible task.
“Website accessibility” is a term used to describe the functionality of a website by individuals with disabilities that may or may not use assistive technology to operate the website. The issue of website accessibility has become a growing concern for educational agencies as the use of computers and the internet becomes a bigger part of education programs and an important tool for distributing notices and information to stakeholders.
Recognizing that many school websites contain barriers to access for individuals with disabilities, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has recently targeted local and state education agencies and schools for investigation and enforcement on the issue of website accessibility. Government standards for accessibility are in the works, but in the meantime OCR has adopted a set of generally accepted guidelines governing accessibility called the “web content accessibility guidelines” (WCAG). WCAG is based on 4 principles:
- The website must be perceivable (i.e. provide text alternatives for images, provide captions for multimedia, present content in different ways, make it easy to see and hear content, contrast alternatives)
- The website must be operable (i.e. make all functionality available through a keyboard, help users navigate content, adequate time to perceive content)
- The website must be understandable (i.e. text is readable, content operates in a predictable way, user can correct and avoid mistakes)
- The website must be robust (i.e. website is compatible with assistive technology tools)
OCR’s authority for investigating website accessibility complaints derives from its jurisdiction to enforce Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (applicable to federal funding recipients) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (applicable to state and local governments). Generally, these disability discrimination laws require that school districts provide qualified individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services, and activities, unless doing so would constitute an undue burden or fundamentally alter the nature of their program. Even further, Title II of the ADA specifically requires that communications to individuals with disabilities be as effective as communications to individuals who are not disabled. OCR has read the disability discrimination laws to encompass access to a school district’s website. Maintaining websites that contain barriers to access for individuals with disabilities may violate these laws and open a district/school up to an OCR complaint, investigation, and enforcement.
Best practice for school systems dealing with a variety of stakeholders and community members is to ensure that the school system’s website is accessible to individuals with disabilities before you receive a complaint from OCR. However, even if you have already received an OCR complaint, there are a number of steps a school system can take to address the issue.
Since website accessibility involves both technical, legal, and administrative components, it is best to approach the problem as a team. The team should include your district’s information technology staff, legal counsel, third-party website host (if applicable), administrative officers, and anyone else who may contribute or edit content for the district’s website. As a team, it is important to identify problems, develop a plan for fixing any problems identified, and prepare the district/school for ongoing compliance by developing policies and procedures governing website accessibility and training those involved in developing content and maintaining the district’s website. The district/school may also want to consider soliciting input from parents, students, community members, and other stakeholders regarding website accessibility.
Undoubtedly, school district and school websites along with other web-based school resources will continue to play an important role for all educational stakeholders. With that in mind, website accessibility will continue to be a vital concern.
If you have any questions about your website’s accessibility or have received an OCR complaint regarding website accessibility, feel free to contact the Education Law attorneys at PK Law. They can assist with guiding you on the steps to take to ensure compliance or provide representation with respect to an OCR complaint.
 Providing effective communications to individuals with disabilities is also a requirement of Title III of the ADA, which is applicable to public accommodations and commercial facilities. This may be the next area of concern for website accessibility.
Adam E. Konstas is an Attorney in PK Law’s Education and Labor Group. He represents local school boards, superintendents, private schools, colleges, and private sector employers before federal and state courts, and federal and state civil rights agencies on a variety of matters, including employment discrimination litigation, teacher and student discipline, collective bargaining, and sexual harassment. Mr. Konstas also advises schools on the design and implementation of policies and procedures regarding student and employee relations, and system-wide policy issues including the use of online instructional tools and cloud computing, student data privacy, anti-discrimination, and website accessibility.
Mr. Konstas is an adjunct professor of school law at McDaniel College, where he completed a class on “Best Practices for Online Teaching and Learning” and is currently teaching an online school law class. He has also lectured on employment law at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Mr. Konstas can be reached at 410-339-5786 or firstname.lastname@example.org.