“We’re a private school. Does our website need to be accessible and ADA-compliant?” This is a question we often get as there's still a great deal of buzz around school website accessibility.
Public schools are required to adhere to section 508 because federal and/or state funding support requires schools toe the line when it comes to being barrier-free. But private school communicators – even those who work for schools that receive no public funding – are asking if they're required to comply.
Well, there are legal answers and then there are moral answers to questions about private school compliance with web accessibility. Without fail, during every Q and A session in the webinars we conduct on website accessibility, the question comes up, and without fail, my stock reply to private school administrators is: “Let me ask you: Do you need to have a fully accessible website?”
The point here is that any private, charter or religious-based school that may be looking for a legal loophole to avoid making their websites accessible, is not only looking for a loophole, but looking for trouble.
For private schools of all kinds
Let’s be clear about what we mean by “private schools.” While the term tends to conjure visions of exclusive, high-tuition, usually religious-centered schools, ‘private’ encompasses a much broader group of non-public institutions large and small. And just because they might be private, doesn’t mean they are financially independent, free from the stipulations that are attached to public funding.
Many private schools receive varying degrees of public funding. Private schools in Ohio, for example, received over $400 million in public funding last year. One private school not far from my home (whose tuition is north of $8K per year) received $2 million in state funds last year.
My daughter, for example, teaches in an inner-city school that’s part of a Catholic Archdiocese. Her school is in an impoverished part of the city. Other private schools include: boarding or day schools, independent, special needs, Montessori, Waldorf, military, Christian and various religious and cultural schools. Private schools span the socioeconomic spectrum and religious denominations, but they share with public schools a need to accommodate people with disabilities in their school communities.
A word that continues to be used throughout our government’s accessibility mission, findings, and implementation is “harmonizing.” The U.S. Access Board is the U.S. federal agency that promotes accessibility in everything from buses and buildings to TV networks and websites.
The board’s focus on communications and IT has it continuously reviewing and updating Section 508 Standards and Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act. The Access Board recently ‘refreshed’ its standards and guidelines to help educate the public and update requirements that include adhering to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0).
WCAG 2.0 is the internationally recognized standard for web content that was forged largely by educational institutions, universities and governmental agencies (the birthplaces of the web). WCAG 2.0 applies not only not only to websites, but also to electronic documents and software, such as the ADA-compliant content management systems that power school websites.
By making the web accessibility requirements more harmonious: easier to grasp, and keeping them up to date with international standards, these laws – required to be applied initially to federal agencies and their contractors – have universal application to more than just the public sector.
Private schools and public accommodation
One of the titles (sections) of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) addresses an important term that private schools must take into account when creating a legal reason for making their websites accessible: public accommodation.
Title III of the ADA states in summary that people with disabilities should not be discriminated against by a “place of public accommodation.” So is, in fact, a private school a place of public accommodation?
According to Monica Murphy, an attorney for the Wisconsin Coalition for Advocacy, “This applies to any nonprofit group or private place of business that is open to the public for the sale of goods or services.” Among the categories covered include “places of education” which, to any advocacy group, school board, or concerned parent is legal reason enough to bring a private school’s accessibility negligence to light.
The ADA National Health Network states that the notion of a website being “a place of public accommodation” is becoming less and less of an argument. If you want to dig around some legal opinions, it’s totally up to you, your school board, or your school’s legal counsel, but the point of this article is that making your private school website accessible should not be a question of litigation, rather an obligation to everyone.
Accessibility: required or not?
Yes, school website accessibility is an obligation. Not just for current students, parents, staff and stakeholder; but an accessible private school website shows responsibility to your entire school community, including all your stakeholders, and prospective students and their families.
When lawmakers first passed the ADA decades ago, it’s hard to imagine they could envision a society so dependent on web communications. But the original law and all the subsequent and corollary regulations, boards and guidelines are standing up pretty well really. Not without challenge, however. Technology and web technology in this instance are evasive, moving-at-the-speed-of-light challenges that should work to eliminate barriers for all, not hide behind them.
So allow me to put the ball back in your court. Let me ask you: Do you need to make your private school website accessible? You tell me.
More resources on the subject:
- School Website Accessibility Education Center
- How to Conduct a School Website Accessibility Audit
- Download a free a school ADA website accessibility policy template
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.