Mar 12, 2019

School Website Accessibility OCR Complaints Continue to Rise

Office of Civil Rights (OCR) complaints related to website accessibility were up 200% in 2018, and show no signs of slowing down. Is your school or district safe from a website accessibility lawsuit? Here's what you should know. 

What Does the Law Require for School Website Accessibility? 

There are three sections of the law that have relevance for school website accessibility: Title II, Section 504 and Section 508. 

  • Title II of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says that state and local government agencies (including schools) cannot discriminate against people with disabilities in access to services, programs, and activities. (Similar provisions under Title III apply to the commercial sector.) 

  • Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act says that people with disabilities "cannot be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

  • Section 508 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act requires Federal agencies and organizations receiving Federal funds to make electronic information and information technology accessible for people with disabilities. 

Together, these laws provide broad protections for people with disabilities impacting mobility, vision, hearing, or cognition, with required accommodations ranging from wheelchair ramps for physical access to Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) for students with learning differences. Section 508 lays out specific accessibility requirements for websites and other digital resources. 

Over the last decade, as more of the educational experience has shifted to online and electronic resources, the Department of Education OCR has put added emphasis on access to digital materials and information. The OCR Technology Accessibility guidelines, released in 2010, state: 

Section 504 and Title II require schools and colleges to ensure that the technology they use is fully accessible to individuals with disabilities or otherwise to provide equal access to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology.

This requirement is now broadly understood to include information on the school and district public website as well as digital curriculum resources. This is because the school website is considered to be an essential component of the services that the school provides. Just as all students must have equal access to physical classrooms and textbooks, all members of the school community must be able to access forms, schedules, calendars, emergency alerts, news feeds, and electronic resources posted on the school website. 

A Rising Tide of OCR Website Litigation

Litigation related to website accessibility has been rising over the last several years as consumers, families, and disability rights advocates have turned their attention to the importance of digital access in today's increasingly online world. There were 2,285 Title III website accessibility lawsuits filed in 2018, up from 814 in 2017. These 2,285 lawsuits represented 21% of all OCR complaints filed under Title III in 2018. High-profile lawsuits against Domino's Pizza, Target, Hobby Lobby, Five Guys and other large companies in recent years have drawn increased attention to the importance of website accessibility that have implications for the school community as well.  

Schools have faced an increasing number of Title II lawsuits related to website accessibility over the last three years. Many of these have been filed by Michigan disability rights advocate Marcie Lipsett, who has made it her mission to shine a light on school website accessibility issues. Since 2016, she has filed more than 2,400 web accessibility complaints against schools and districts, out of which more than 1,000 have resulted in resolution agreements with OCR. 

The pace slowed in 2018, when hundreds of Lipsett's complaints were put on hold after the DOE instituted a policy that allowed them to dismiss complaints by "mass filers." However, this policy was reversed in November 2018after a successful suit filed by the NAACP, the National Federation of the Blind, and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. Hundreds of filings that were put on hold under the 2018 policy are now once again up for OCR review. With the suit settled, new filings from disability advocates and families are expected to rise again for 2019 and beyond. 

Mass filers like Lipsett are responsible for roughly one quarter to one third of all school website OCR complaints. But most complaints are filed by individual families and students or local lawyers and civil rights organizations representing them. Once a complaint is filed, the OCR must investigate and, if it finds that the complaint has merit, work with the school or district towards resolution. 

The Cost of an Inaccessible School Website

The costs can be high for districts caught up in website accessibility lawsuits. In 2014, the Seattle School District was suedby a mother of three blind students and the National Federation for the Blind because information and curriculum resources on their websites were not accessible for visually impaired students. They were ordered to pay $5,000 in damages plus $80,000 in legal fees to the plaintiffs. Anticipated costs to remedy the accessibility issues—which would include hiring a new accessibility coordinator, an outside audit of their website, and staff training—were estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Most districts—like New York City—choose to settle prior to going to court. OCR will allow settlementif the school or district voluntarily commits to taking action to make content on their websites accessible for all students and families. For districts that may have thousands of pages across multiple school sites and organizations, the cost of bringing an existing website into full compliance following a complaint can easily be in the tens of thousands of dollars. 

Guidelines for School Website Accessibility

While the law requires equal access to website information and resources, it does not specify exactly what schools must do to achieve this. However, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), have become a de facto standard for accessibility for schools and other government agencies. 

As with many things, the best defense may be a good offense. The OCR recognizes that school website accessibility is an ongoing challenge for schools and districts. A good faith effort towards improving accessibility will go a long way towards reducing the risk of an OCR complaint or civil lawsuit. Some of the most common OCR complaints—such as a lack of al-text for images, poor color contrast, and inaccessible PDFs—are also the easiest to fix.

Creating an ADA-Compliant School Website

Often, the best plan is to start where you are and ensure that all content moving forward will be created with accessibility in mind. Over time, inaccessible content will be replaced as the website evolves. 

There are two key components to think about when it comes to improving accessibility. 

  • Platform: Some issues rest with the vendor who provides your school website CMS. These include back-end issues that impact how well the site will work for visitors using accessibility software or navigating the site by tabbing instead of by mouse. 

  • Content: Other issues are the responsibility of the person creating content on your website, such as providing alt-text for images and making sure PDFs are accessible. There are simple steps schools can take to improve website accessibility

To solve the platform problem, many schools are considering third-party accessibility tools. These tools integrate with the existing website and aim to resolve common website accessibility issues such as menu accessibility and color contrast ratios. However, an easier solution is to look for a school website CMS that has accessibility features built into the platform itself. 

With a CMS built for accessibility—like eChalk—schools should not need third-party accessibility tools added to their website. eChalk's K-12 CMS has accessibility features built in, like ARIA Landmarking, Keyboard Navigation, Tab Focus, Translation Tools and more. We make it easy for districts to build a website that meets Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 standards.

Have questions about school website accessibility? We can help. Contact us to find out more.