There is no letting up on the pressure on school districts across America to comply with accessibility laws for school websites. But what about our neighbors to the north? Are Canada’s schools facing the same challenges schools in the U.S. are encountering to make and keep their websites accessible to those with disabilities?
With nationwide figures that show one in seven Canadians have a disability, the need for accessibility accommodations apparently is just as strong in the country that spans 10 provinces and three territories covering a landmass larger than the U.S.
As different as Canada and the U.S. are in size, population, politics (and pro football rules), the two countries share a commitment at the federal government level to serving people with disabilities. And it’s Ontario – Canada’s most populated province – that should be commended for leading the way breaking down barriers for school students, staff, parents and school communities.
Ontario was the first jurisdiction in the world to mandate accessibility reporting from organizations. “Ontario is the first in the world to require staff to be trained on accessibility, and the first in Canada to implement legislation that sets out clear goals for achieving full accessibility by 2025,” says Anne-Marie Flanagan with the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario.
Some provinces, namely Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia, according to Flanagan, have already followed Ontario’s lead to implement their own steps to achieving accessibility.
A national Canadian mandate
Like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in the U.S. and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Canada’s legal footing for meeting the needs of the disabled population starts with the Canadian Human Rights Act of 1977.
At the provincial level, Ontario passed legislation in 2005 to create accessibility standards. This law, the Accessibility of Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), is parallel to the USA’s ADA in that it is comprehensive and addresses many facets of accommodating those with disabilities. For school websites, both public and private schools have certain milestones to reach as outlined by the Accessibilities Directorate of Ontario.
But are, in fact, Canada’s schools employing these widely accepted guidelines and keeping their websites as accessible as possible? A report from the Canadian Human Rights Commission concludes that significant proportions of Canadians with disabilities are facing institutional barriers to a quality education. To what degree do inaccessible school websites contribute to or compound these communication obstacles?
And while those schools in and around cities like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton – those with denser populations – may be making progress in building accessible websites, what about the challenges facing those people with disabilities living in the more sparsely populated areas of Canada?
AODA and Canada web standards in context
In May 2000, the Canadian government first established its Common Look and Feel (CLF) standards based on widely accepted WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) to ensure that its government websites were accessible. These guidelines are developed by W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium, which sets web standards both broad and specific, as part of its Web Accessibility Initiative.
In 2010, the government started adopting new standards on web accessibility which led to requiring that government websites conform with WCAG 2.0 requirements, the international web accessibility standard.
Depending on whether yours is a private or public school, according to AODA, there are varying degrees of compliance and deadlines by which Ontario's schools must comply. In short, all schools are required to have accessibility policies and plans in place and generally must to be able to make public information available in an accessible format when asked.
Canadian schools were to have had their websites accessible, by January 1, 2014. This includes new website contracts and current websites that have new content. Specifically,
- Private schools with 50 or more staff and all public schools are subject to AODA web accessibility regulations.
- Beginning January 1, 2014: new public websites, significantly refreshed websites and any web content posted after January 1, 2012 must meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level A
- All archival or existing web content must be accessible by January 1, 2021.
- Beginning January 1, 2021: all public websites and web content posted after January 1, 2012 must meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA other than criteria 1.2.4 (live captions) and 1.2.5 (pre-recorded audio descriptions)
- Schools must provide educational and training resources and materials in accessible formats upon request.
Part of the schools website accessibility policy and planning should include school administrators working directly with the person who is asking to figure out how to meet their needs as soon as possible. In addition, by 2020, all school library resource material and printed learning materials need to be accessible. Institutions that violate AODA standards are subject to fines.
Accessibility: a worldwide imperative
Canada’s education accessibility initiative reflects not only the movement in the U.S., but an international commitment to insure an inclusive education system for all. It’s a worldwide issue that even the United Nations addresses in article 24 of its Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind), a non-profit organization referred to in previous Campus Suite blog articles on school website accessibility, is a valuable resource for educational institutions around the world, for it’s been at the forefront on helping web developers to use international standards such as WCAG 2.0.
In the U.S., many schools are converting their websites to be fully accessible and ADA compliant. Some districts are being forced to respond to formal complaints from the Office for Civil Rights. Others are getting out in front of accessibility by putting policies in place, designating accessibility coordinators and engaging a managed ADA service as part of their website content management solution.
For a deeper understanding a practical guides on how to go about making your school website accessible, refer to the School Website Accessibility Education Center, where you’ll find ‘how-to’ resources – articles, guides, infographics, and videos on bringing and keeping websites current with accessibility laws.
Ontario is breaking down the barriers
While a website that’s fully accessible to those with disabilities won’t cure all what ails Canada’s school disability issues, a barrier-free website forms the a critical foundation to ensuring your entire school community is sharing and engaging as it should.
Short of any broader national law that captures the spirit of what Ontario is doing to make school websites accessible, Canada schools in all provinces and territories would do well to follow Ontario’s lead on this important movement. For even if a law is not in place to make school websites accessible to all, it’s nonetheless the right thing to do.
The sooner you phase out your old, non-accessible – and in some cases, yes, illegal – websites, the better.
The Accessibility Directorate of Ontario, which oversees all things accessible in that province and is not-so quietly paving the way for all of Canada, is applying a little pressure itself and has even come up with a catch phrase: “Make Ontario completely accessible by 2025.”
But when it comes to school websites, I say why not start now?
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @jay4schools.