Mar 25, 2019

Does Your School Website Need Third-Party Software For Accessibility?

School website accessibility is an issue that schools and districts can't afford to ignore. Website accessibility OCR complaints are on the rise. A proactive approach to ADA and Section 508 compliance can help schools avoid expensive litigation and emergency modifications. 

Many districts are turning to third-party accessibility providers to bring their sites into compliance. These providers claim to be a quick fix for school website accessibility. But what do they actually do? And do you really need a third-party accessibility tool on top of your school website CMS? 

School Website Accessibility: Platform Issues vs. Content Issues

Before we talk about what these vendors do, it's helpful to take a closer look at what we mean by website accessibility and who is responsible for ensuring that a website is compliant. 

An accessible website is designed to ensure that everyone who visits has equal access to all of the content, regardless of disability. Users with visual, auditory or mobility challenges should be able to navigate the site and get the information they need. There are two components to this: the platform and the content. 

The website platform should have back-end features that improve navigation and content access for people with disabilities. Features such as ARIA landmarks, keyboard navigation tools, and contrast ratios should work natively so users can benefit with or without assistive technology. These are issues that school webmasters can't fix on their own; they must be embedded into the platform itself or added on with a third party software tool. 

Maintaining accessible content, on the other hand, is largely the responsibility of the school webmaster and other content creators. An accessible website platform will not fix issues such as PDFs that can't be read by screen readers, videos without transcripts, or images without proper alt text. Content managers must use the accessibility tools they have available to them, such as image alt-text and proper use of headers. They must also think about the accessibility of specific pieces of content such as videos, PDFs, flash animations or audio recordings. If a piece of content cannot be made accessible, steps must be taken to give the users who cannot access it an alternate method of getting the information, such as a robust description of an animation or a transcript of a video or audio recording. 

What Third-Party Accessibility Tools Can (and Can't) Do

The surge in website accessibility litigation has resulted in a new wave of software companies promising to help schools (and others) identify and correct accessibility issues on their site. These companies claim to do the heavy lifting involved in bringing an existing site up to compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, the current standard for website accessibility. Some providers promise to bring the site into compliance through a combination of automated software fixes and manual remediation.

These solutions require districts to inject a software script into their website that checks the site and its content for common accessibility problems. Some companies promise that they can then automatically fix some of the issues identified. This may involve adding their own accessibility toolbar or widgets to the sites, which act as a workaround for sites that are not natively accessible. Accessibility tools may point users to a separate, accessible website with high contrast, ARIA landmarking, and other accessibility aids.

However, even the best overlay tool can't fix everything. If, for example, the underlying CMS does not provide good keyboard focus (a design feature that allows a viewer to easily determine where he/she is located on a webpage when using a keyboard to navigate), an accessibility overlay usually can’t fix the problem. We have seen countless sites with accessibility overlays where, as you tab through the site, focus simply disappears and the viewer is lost in space.

Platform issues that are addressed with custom development such as a separate accessible navigation bar may provide an alternative path initially, but these issues won't stay fixed. Over time, as you make changes to the underlying site, the custom development for the accessible navigation bar becomes out of date. As the district makes changes to their navigation structure, people using the accessible navigation overlay will not have access to the new navigation items unless the third-party tool is updated manually at the same time.  

And add-on software solutions come with another big drawback for schools and districts: cost. They are commonly delivered as a managed service with an annual licensing fee—a cost that can eclipse what districts are paying for the website platform itself. This can put a significant strain on a school's website budget.  

Lastly, the process of implementing a third-party tool often requires a large time commitment from the district. The initial attraction of an outside provider is that it might unburden district staff. But an outside provider may take three to six months to fix all of the issues and will need substantial input from the school or district along the way. 

Is Add-On Accessibility The Answer? 

If districts still have to do a lot of manual work to make their sites compliant and keep them that way, is the cost of an add-on solution justified? When accessibility is an afterthought, schools and districts often find they are simply doubling both costs and workload over time. With or without an add-on tool, districts have to do the work of ensuring that content added to the site remains accessible for all visitors. This is much easier and more cost effective when accessibility tools are built into the website platform itself.  

At eChalk, we believe that accessibility shouldn't require an add-on. School websites should be inherently accessible for the broadest audience possible. Our school website platform uses design elements and back-end features that make the website experience better for everyone. Some of these elements include: 

  • Built-in ARIA landmarking to make our pages accessible for people using assistive technologies.

  • Keyboard navigation features like "skip to navigation" or "skip to main content" to allow the end user to quickly access the information they are looking for.

  • Keyboard focus that is very clear and highly contrasted so the user always knows where they are navigating on the page. 

  • Responsive designs that allow assistive technology to work the same way on any platform (phone, tablet, computer).

  • High-contrast designs that look great for everyone and are easier for people with low visual acuity or color blindness to see. 

  • Translation tools for users who need content in their native languages. 

  • Content creation tools that make it easy to add alt text to images and use headers appropriately. 

Schools and districts who are considering adding an accessibility overlay onto their existing website may be better served in the long term by moving to a CMS platform built for accessibility and skipping the overlay altogether. Starting with a platform that is built for accessibility will go a long way towards ensuring compliance with ADA and Section 508. Following a few simple steps for accessible content creation will ensure that everyone who visits the school website can locate and access the information they are looking for. 

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