Reaching all students is a guiding principle within education, but what if your school was doing just the opposite – perhaps inadvertently? What if you were making information inaccessible to students, parents, and community members with disabilities? You’d want to fix it right away which may mean a complete overhaul of your school website and technology tools to ensure its compliance with federal regulations.
Unfortunately, many schools are at risk of being noncompliant and there are legal repercussions. Could your school’s web presence be under review? Or the next one to come into question?
The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has been busy reviewing hundreds of cases to determine if certain school websites are compliant with the Americans Disabilities Act (ADA).
Valuable lessons can be gleaned from the landmark case filed by Noel Nightingale and co-plaintiff, the National Federation of the Blind, against Seattle Public Schools. Nightingale, a blind mother of three, was unable to access the school’s website and a math software program to help her kids.
ADA-compliance is all about accessibility
Accessibility is the key factor and a pivotal element of your school’s communication strategy. Without access, your reach is hindered.
Living in a technologically plugged-in society, it is imperative that schools accommodate people with disabilities within the digital realm. This means thinking beyond the tangible accommodations that often come to mind like wheelchair ramps and braille signage.
Seattle Public schools has worked diligently to rectify its mistakes and prominently displays a clear definition of web accessibility on its site: “Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web.” Adding this definition to your own school website is a prudent measure that can be done easily.
School web and technology access needs to be considered for anyone who comes in contact with your site-even if you are unaware of an individual’s specific disability. It is incumbent upon educational institutions to ensure their web information and technology tools can be accessed and utilized by any person—whether or not they have a disability.
Accommodating people with disabilities
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 13% of students receive special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In the general population, the number of individuals with a disability is one in five.
Student disabilities aren’t the only consideration: schools must be able to accommodate the special needs of parents and all adults, like in the case with Nightingale, who need to be able to access school information through the website and ed-tech tools.
Take a moment to consider whether your website would be accessible to someone who is visually impaired or has a physical disability that would prevent them from being able to use a mouse to scroll through web content. All too often these considerations have been overlooked.
If you don’t act swiftly and make the needed upgrades to your school’s technology portals and website, there could be legal ramifications. Take it from more than 350 schools and educational institutions that are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for reports of inaccessibility to items like distance learning, educational content, a school website, and other software applications.
Federal statutes provide guidance
Several federal statutes outline how educational institutions must operate to ensure they are not discriminating against an individual on the basis of a person’s disability. Plain and simple, information must be accessible to everyone. That may mean changing the way a file is uploaded or reformatting text in a headline. If you feature a video on your school’s website, you’ll want to be sure to include video captioning.
Additional web accessibility features include:
- Text to speech
- High-contrast themes
- Skip-to-content and skip-to-menu links
- Enlarged cursors
- Visual cues
- Keyboard shortcuts
- Sticky keys
- Training editors on alt text and HTML headings
The American Disabilities Act along with Section 504 and Section 508 under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 set guidelines for technology accessibility and the distribution of information. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has an accessibility checklist for further reference.
This means all aspects of your school’s communication plan must comply. Everything from your school’s website to email campaigns and online portals to access educational materials and view grades must be considered.
Many of the cases investigated by the OCR have resulted in consent agreements where schools are charged with fixing the problem areas (examples of OCR settlement agreements). As for specific direction on what improvements to make, there are two international standards that are offered as a reference to help with school website ADA compliance: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and Web Accessibility Initiative Accessible Rich Internet Application Suite.
Start complying now
To ensure school website ADA compliance, you’ll need to implement a multi-faceted approach.
- Start with executive-level attention by building a cross-functional accessibility team. Tap people in communications, IT, faculty, parents and even the superintendent’s office to test the functionality and accessibility of your site. Develop a checklist that covers the various aspects of technology that should be reviewed. It may also be wise to get a legal expert on board to weigh in and provide legal guidance.
- Conduct an audit on existing technologies. Once results from the audit are available, respond to the considerations publicly. Announce the action steps you are going to take as a result of the audit. Hiring an accessibility coordinator can ensure timely follow through. When recommendations are made, be sure to examine procurement processes and contracts while making this review process transparent.
- Provide information about your policy. Outline a plan to ensure that all faculty and staff are equipped to communicate effectively with people with disabilities. Offer a streamlined protocol for teachers to ensure accessibility of educational content through online portals. Develop and implement a website accessibility policy and provide training for appropriate personnel. When working with vendors, request that they provide specific information about ADA compliance and make that information available on your school’s website.
- Utilize the expertise and support of a Content Management System to help with web accessibility. Ensure that the CMS provider is equipped to comply with the American Disabilities Act.
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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.