Making School Websites Accessible for Everyone
School websites serve a broad and diverse audience of students, families, staff and community members. Districts need to make sure that the information on their websites is usable and accessible for everyone—including website visitors with special needs.
Why Website Accessibility Matters
School and district websites are no longer an optional part of the overall communication plan. Your website is now usually the first place families, staff and community members will look for school information, from enrollment forms to calendars to employee resources. Rather than just a homepage that puts a pretty face on the school, the school website is an information hub that people rely on every day.
Increasingly, teachers are also using web pages to share important class news, assignments and curriculum resources. The growing role that web content plays in home/school communication makes website accessibility not just a nice upgrade but a true equity issue. Students, families and staff members who cannot access content on the website due to visual, auditory or mobility challenges are missing out on critical information they need to be successful.
That’s why many schools are now finding themselves under increasing pressure to make their website more accessible. Under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), schools are required to make sure learning resources are accessible to students with visual or auditory differences or mobility challenges. This can be interpreted to mean school websites, especially if the website is used to share important classroom information and curriculum resources. While specific requirements are still evolving, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE)’s Office of Civil Rights is monitoring accessibility complaints for school websites. In some cases, parents have successfully sued districts over inaccessible websites.
Four Domains of Website Accessibility
There are currently no specific standards for website accessibility that schools are legally obligated to follow. However, the DOE expects schools to make every reasonable attempt to make website content accessible for people with disabilities of all kinds.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has developed accessibility guidelines that schools and districts can follow. The Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 standards lay out guidelines for accessibility in four critical domains:
- Provide text alternatives for non-text content.
- Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia.
- Create content that can be presented in different ways, including by assistive technologies, without losing meaning.
- Make it easier for users to see and hear content.
- Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
- Give users enough time to read and use content.
- Do not use content that causes seizures.
- Help users navigate and find content.
- Make text readable and understandable.
- Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
- Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
- Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.
Quick Tips for School Website Accessibility
Moving towards full compatibility with WCAG 2.0 will take considerable time and effort for schools. However, there are some quick and easy things that schools can do right now to make their websites more accessible. Using these guidelines for all new content moving forward will go a long way towards improving accessibility.
- Always use Alt Text. Every image you use should have alt text applied, preferably when you upload it so you don't have to go back to add it later.
- Keep Alt Text short and accurate. It should not be a caption; it is a short description of what is in the photo itself. (e.g. “student with butterfly” or “baseball trophy.”)
- Page titles matter. Page titles should clearly state where the user is. It is the first thing that users hear on a screen reader. So "Home Page" is not a great title; "Mrs. Clark's 5th Grade Home Page" is a much better title.
- Do not name links ambiguously. In other words, don’t use “click here” as your link. This is ambiguous and doesn't really let the user know where they are going. The link should describe where it is that it will take you.
- Watch the use of text color. Don't use color alone to convey meaning. For example, don't change the color of text in an RTE block to indicate importance or some other meaning.
- Caption videos. YouTube has automatic captioning that can be enabled for videos. If the caption isn't accurate, they allow you to edit it, so it better reflects your video’s contents. Use their captioning feature or, if you’re not using YouTube to host videos, create transcripts or captions using tools provided by your video host.
- Reduce the use of PDFs, where possible, or make your PDFs accessible. Sometimes PDF's can be avoided by putting content into a regular web page format. However, for some materials (manuals, handbooks, etc.) you may need a PDF that can be easily downloaded or printed without losing formatting. Where a PDF is needed, you should ensure that the PDF is created to be accessible. This is now an option in Adobe Acrobat and in newer versions of Word when you save files as a PDF.
Website accessibility is a complex topic, and following these guidelines will not make your site 100% WCAG 2.0 compliant. But they do represent “low hanging fruit” that should be easy for schools and districts to correct right away. Following these guidelines consistently is a great first step towards improved accessibility for students, families and staff.