By D|K’s School and Higher Education Law Team
An increasing area of attention for the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is whether school districts are providing accessible websites for individuals with disabilities. OCR has heightened its enforcement actions against larger educational institutions over the past few years for violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act for failing to provide accessible websites consistent with both laws’ protections. OCR’s enforcement actions are now beginning to trickle down to the local level and will begin to affect all districts large and small in the months ahead. There have been over 600 complaints filed nationwide with an existing backlog in our Region’s local OCR office in Chicago due to OCR’s investigation of every complaint. It is important to learn about and address this issue now, without the pressure and compressed timeline of an OCR investigation.
The critical issue for Districts surrounding website accessibility is whether individuals with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, interact, and contribute to the internet or worldwide web in a way that is equal to and as effective as that of individuals without disabilities. Individuals impacted by an inaccessible website may include those that are visually impaired (unable to view images or color contrast difficulties), have limited manual dexterity (need speech recognition or keyboard alternatives), or hearing-impaired (need for closed-captioning). Title II of the ADA applies to state and local governments, which includes school districts, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act applies to recipients of federal funds, which also includes school districts. Both Title II and Section 504 prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Common problems and violations for websites are: missing text descriptions (a/k/a “alt-tags”) that describe images to blind/low-vision users, having access to important content only by mouse, displaying color combinations making text difficult to see, and/or playing videos not accurately captioned for people who are deaf.
As a result of the numerous complaints, OCR is entering into Resolution Agreements with Districts across the country, including at least a handful of Districts in Wisconsin, requiring a series of actions to bring their websites into compliance with Title II and Section 504. Common themes and conditions throughout published Resolution Agreements include the following:
- People with disabilities must have opportunities equal to others in programs, services, and activities;
- Website audits must be performed by persons with the knowledge and experience to audit content and functionality;
- The adoption of policies and procedures to ensure all new and modified content is accessible;
- Developing a corrective action plan to remove existing barriers;
- Posting a notice of how to request access to inaccessible information;
- Providing website accessibility training to all appropriate personnel; and
- Websites must be accessible not only to students but also members of the public with disabilities.
It is crucial for Districts to get ahead of this issue now instead of having to implement these requirements on an accelerated time schedule that may conflict with a District’s budgetary and time capabilities. More importantly, it communicates a District’s commitment to website accessibility to individuals with disabilities, which does not apply only to students. It applies to all staff within a District along with parents and other individuals with disabilities that may need to access a District’s website. Districts should take actions consistent with the common themes described above including: adopting a website accessibility policy, performing periodic audits by a qualified auditor, and training all staff on how to properly display accessible content. Districts should also develop their own realistic implementation plan, consider establishing a web accessibility committee with multi-disciplinary team members, and evaluate accessibility across multiple applications such as mobile, tablet, and desktop websites. Finally, Districts should document all of their efforts in addressing this issue, which will be vital if OCR comes knocking. In conclusion, Districts should make this issue a priority due to OCR’s recent enforcement activity after years of trying to obtain voluntary compliance. OCR appears to be done waiting.
If you have any questions, please contact your Davis & Kuelthau, s.c. attorney.
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