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Reduce the Risk of a Department of Education Investigation Regarding Website Accessibility Reduce the Risk of a Department of Education Investigation Regarding Website Accessibility

Reduce the Risk of a Department of Education Investigation Regarding Website Accessibility

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has opened hundreds of investigations regarding whether websites operated by primary schools, colleges and universities, and even state departments of education comply with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). For the most part, the complaints forming the basis of the investigations are not being made by current or prospective students but by national disability rights activists. Using online tools, the activists analyze school websites and report deficiencies, such as failure to caption photographs for blind persons and failure to use text and background color combinations for visually-impaired persons, to the OCR.
The OCR has entered into resolution agreements with numerous schools as a result of these investigations. These resolution agreements generally call for the school to develop an ADA policy for its website, fix all errors, conduct periodic audits, and submit to monitoring for compliance with the agreement for a period of time. Schools can reduce the chance an investigation will be opened against them by taking the following steps:
  1. Establish a policy. Each school should have a policy setting forth the steps it will take in order to comply with ADA requirements regarding website accessibility. The policy should designate a point person for ADA compliance issues. The policy should also include website accessibility standards for all of the school's websites. The most commonly used standard is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Version 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) and Web Accessibility Initiative Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite 1.0 (WAI-ARIA 1.0). The OCR typically specifies the WCAG 2.0 and/or WAI-ARIA 1.0 guidelines in its resolution agreements. The WCAG 2.0 and WAI-ARIA 1.0 were developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). WCAG 2.0, for example, comprises technical standards for website accessibility and provides guidelines that use certain criteria to measure success. The OCR has identified the middle tier of success- Level AA as the required minimum in its resolution agreements so far.
  2. Conduct periodic audits. On a periodic basis, schools should check to make sure their websites comply with the standards adopted in the policy. An easy way to check compliance against WCAG 2.0 standards is to use the free WAVE tool developed by the National Center on Disability and Access to Education or one of the many tools from the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool List from W3C. Webpages with the most hits, like homepages and admissions pages, should be checked more frequently than other pages.  It is important for schools to include non-public websites as part of their audits. For example, virtual classrooms, eLearning platforms, and other student accessible websites are still subject to ADA requirements and may be required to adhere to WCAG 2.0 standards. 
  3. Provide training. Persons generating web content should be trained on how to meet the standards adopted by the school. A wide variety of persons may publish web content, from professors and administrators to teaching assistants and students. It is important for such content creators to be aware of the requirements and for schools to ensure adequate training. A little training can go a long way as it is generally easier to generate ADA compliant content from the outset rather than go back and fix it after it is live. 
  4. Accept complaints. Many resolution agreements require schools to provide notice on their website(s) allowing persons with disabilities to report accessibility issues with online information or functionality. Providing such notice has the benefit of giving the school an opportunity to fix accessibility violations before they are reported to the OCR.  Many school websites allow access to such forms by clicking a link on the bottom of their website, near the privacy or consumer notice.
  5. Make vendors responsible for ADA compliance. Schools should contractually obligate their vendors to ensure ADA compliance, with WCAG 2.0 standards, or the schools’ own standards for accessibility specified in the contract. This is particularly important for schools that outsource their web hosting and web content generation or schools that have deployed online learning environments. Schools will be held accountable for the actions of its vendors and must ensure vendor products and services are ADA compliant.
For more information, contact Nate Uhl or Sid Bose.

This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. The reader must consult with legal counsel to determine how laws or decisions discussed herein apply to the reader's specific circumstances.
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