School Law Advisor Blog

Accessibility Check for District Websites

          School districts should be aware of the increasing number of complaints received by the Office for Civil Rights questioning the accessibility of websites and web content for individuals with disabilities.  These investigations have found issues with district websites not providing images with alternative texts, not being accessible to individuals with vision impairments, and not working with assistive technologies.
          The Justice Department has been aware of this problem but faces a challenge in issuing a rule on quickly evolving technology.  There is now a proposed rule creating a technical standard for website accessibility known as "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level AA"  ("WCAG 2.0").  School districts can use free or subscription-based online tools to perform a simple website accessibility test.
          Regardless of whether the DOJ adopts these technical standards, schools have an ongoing obligation under Section 504 and Title II to students with disabilities.  Two tips districts can implement immediately are (1) making graphics "readable" and (2) asking for feedback on website accessibility.  Most graphics on websites are either eye candy or relevant to the content.  If you use a graphic that's not relevant to the content, make sure that the picture is tagged to be invisible on a screen reader, otherwise a student's screen reader will read the picture as "graphic."  If the graphic is relevant to the content, it should have an appropriate text description that is readable by the screen reader. 
Other important accessibility features include:
  • A common look and feel of the design.
  • Skip navigation that allows users to jump to essential information on the website.
  • Accessible images that include alternative text.
  • Adjustable text size.
  • Tags that designate web page elements.
  • Cascading style sheets that allow the site to be displayed on different devices.
  • Search engine.
  • Appropriately tagged tables.
  • Video captions and text transcriptions.
  • Documents in accessible PDF format.
          One strategy a technical specialist for the state of Minnesota ED suggest is creating templates to simplify the process of making documents accessible.  "Making a document is not necessarily intuitive or easy," she says, "one thing we did was developed templates in Microsoft Word.  When someone opens a new document, they use certain styles created in Word that prompt them to include accessible features in the document."  For example, using a style to create a heading rather than changing the size of the font creates structure in a Word document, which helps a person using a screen reader navigate the page.  Microsoft Word also has a built-in accessibility checker than can scan for issues.
      All districts must appoint a Section 504 coordinator and annually publish a notice of nondiscrimination.  Inform parents, students, and staff about how to contact district personnel if they encounter an accessibility issue with digital resources.  Districts cannot wait for a student with a disability to report an accessibility problem before fixing the problem, and all methods for using an internal procedure to assess district website accessibility will greatly reduce the risk that an OCR complaint will be filed in this area.
          If you are a subscriber to Education Week, this article includes a summary of the issue with helpful links and resources.