Chapter 1

Legal considerations in accessibility


Learn the common website barriers people with disabilities face, why a website needs to be ADA-compliant, how barriers are brought to light, and how to prevent and handle complaints when your website does not meet legal requirements.

Barriers to accessibility

Website accessibility has become a priority communications challenge for school districts across the country. Good-looking, easy-to-navigate school websites may appear plenty accessible and user-friendly to most of us, but they may not be to everyone.

Just as your school buildings and grounds are mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) law to be barrier-free to everyone, your school website is required to be fully accessible. 

Individuals with vision, hearing, physical or learning disabilities need to be accommodated so that they can access web content. A significant chunk of your students, parents, staff and school community at large are being shut off from your web communications unless you’ve taken the necessary step to be fully ADA-compliant.

If you are planning or managing a school website, it's your responsibility to ensure you meet the U.S. federal website accessibility requirements. As a school communicator, it's important you understand website accessibility remediation and all the considerations that go into resolving the issues that can affect your school’s website ADA-compliance. 


It's about equal access

Simply put, web accessibility means that anyone with disabilities should be able to perceive, comprehend, navigate and interact with your website – students, parents, staff, community members at large. Web accessibility is important for it provides equal access and opportunity for everyone in your school community to participate in the education experience.

It’s for your blind teacher, autistic kindergartner, your hearing-impaired high schooler. It’s for the learning-disabled student, paraplegic parent, for the aging grandmother. Web accessibility is for the approximately one-in-five of the U.S. population that suffers from one sort of disability or another, and the four who don’t.

By identifying and knocking down the communication barriers that exist on your website, you can maximize the delivery of content and interaction with all your website visitors and entire school community, and help meet your school’s mission.


The percentage of the U.S. population that has a disability.

Web accessibility: why it's important

Web accessibility means that anyone with one or more disabilities should be able to perceive, comprehend, navigate and interact with your website – students, parents, staff, community members at large. Web accessibility is important because it provides equal access and opportunity for everyone in your school community to participate in the education experience.

Web accessibility matters for the teacher who is blind, the kindergartner with autism, the high schooler who is hearing impaired. It’s for the student with learning disabilities, the parent with paraplegia, and the grandmother who's advanced age. Web accessibility is for the approximately one-in-four Americans that have a disability and the three who don’t. When everyone can participate, we have a more diverse and engaging community, and that benefits all of us.

By identifying and knocking down the communication barriers that exist on your website, you can maximize the delivery of content and the quality of interaction with all of your website visitors, which will help you meet your school’s mission of inclusion.

5 types of disabilities

Sight or hearing impairments can certainly present challenges to people fully accessing web content, but there are actually five main categories of disabilities that a website must address to be ADA-compliant: 1. auditory 2. cognitive/learning 3. physical 4. speech and 5. visual.

For disabilities of all kinds

According to the U.S. Census, 20 percent of the U.S. population has a disability. When thinking of website accessibility for the disabled, most people think of blind or deaf people and their challenges with viewing or hearing what’s on your website. Screen readers translate the written screen text into audible language while captioning and online transcripts bring to life video and multimedia content on the web. But there’s more to website accessibility than just satisfying your vision- and hearing-impaired users.

Not everyone has the physical ability to handle a mouse, for example, or even hunt-and-peck simple keyboard navigation. Rotating banners may move much too quickly for a learning-disabled user to view, much less comprehend. Do all your users have the ability to fill out the forms you’ve embedded into your pages? All forms and tables on your website need to be barrier-free for all.


Hold that mouse

The ability to navigate a website without using a mouse is one of many criteria for an ADA-compliant website.

Common myths about website accessibility

Concerns about web accessibility are nothing new. Likewise, quick-fix remedies for a website’s accessibility shortcomings are neither new nor comprehensive.

Myth #1

Just use plain text; avoid the bells and whistles.

A text-only website is not the answer. Video, audio and multimedia should and can be displayed on your website if it’s designed and developed correctly. The goal of web accessibility is not to alter content to fit the ADA requirements, but to broaden the reach of existing content using the right tools.

Myth #2

Just add alt tags to the images.

An alt tag, which is a clear text description that accompanies an image, enables screen readers to translate the image into text. While certainly recommended, alt tags address only a sliver of the full ADA-compliance challenge.

Myth #3

Youtube video links are good to go.

Even if all of your homegrown videos comply with ADA guidelines, what about the ones not hosted by your school? The automatic captioning offered by third-party hosting services like Youtube and Vimeo probably doesn’t pass muster.

Myth #4

Compliance is not a priority of federal agencies.

All you need to do is check the U.S. Dept. of Education website, where there’s a dedicated web page: “How to File a Discrimination Complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.” Across the country, notification letters from disability advocates are being written and lawsuits have begun.

Myth #5

There is no quick fix to ADA-compliance.

There is no quick fix when it comes to making your school website fully ADA-compliant for all your users. If you have a legacy of creating content with little regard for users with special requirements, years of website content cannot be remedied simply with alt tags and screen readers.

How to handle OCR complaints

Often, it's not until a complaint is lodged against a school or district that website accessibility shows up on a school communicator's radar. Some schools' introduction to website accessibility comes via a complaint from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) which is the part of the U.S. Department of Education that assures equal access to education.


OCR investigates complaints lodged by individuals or advocacy groups that feel someone’s rights have been violated. Voting, employment, housing, and health privacy (HIPAA) are examples of familiar civil rights issues we are all familiar with. As web communications have grown to be a large part of our daily lives, access to digital communications is now, in fact, a right that is enforced.


“The OCR is here to see you.”

Here’s how it goes down. An individual or advocacy group notifies the OCR that your school website is inaccessible to one or more segments of your disabled population. (The web accessibility advocacy group WebAIM estimates 8.5 percent of the population has a disability that affects computer use.) The OCR then looks into the complaint, and, providing the claims are accurate, informs your district that an investigation is underway.

In a typical investigation letter – which often goes right to the superintendent – the OCR will point out that portions of your district or school website are not accessible to certain individuals. Here’s an actual example of a letter sent to a school district. There will be requests from the OCR for information, maybe an interview or, in rare cases, a site visit. The good news is, by working with the OCR and acknowledging the issues that exist on your website, you can agree to voluntarily make the changes, and map out a plan for keeping your site compliant.

The U.S. Department of Education is working hard to resolve school website accessibility complaints, and through the OCR is investigating and hammering out resolution agreements. These agreements outline the course of action the district will take. In just about every case, this satisfies the complainant.

Understand, the OCR is not punitive or even adversarial in nature. It’s giving school districts every chance to make things right on their websites. And the sooner, the better.


Early complaint resolution

While binding and potentially very costly to a school district, an investigation by the OCR can be resolved relatively quickly if the district demonstrates a plan of action. The OCR is not out to bust anyone’s chops – it's more of an ombudsman representing the complainant.

The OCR has, in fact, an alternative way to resolve a dispute: it’s called ‘early complaint resolution’ or ECR. (It is the government after all, so you know bureaucrats have to come up with an acronym.) With an ECR, all you need to do is voluntarily agree to resolve the complaint. There’s no liability or fault admitted here; it’s just an agreement between the school district and the OCR that you’ll take the steps to bring your website up to speed.

Keep in mind, the complainant still has the right to file a separate court action. An early complaint resolution, however, is a cooperative process that can be very beneficial to the school in that it not only avoids potential litigation and fines – which no one wants – but can be enlightening to the district by addressing very important accessibility issues that have been neglected. If all goes well, ‘settlements’ will result after the school either resolves or in some cases agrees to resolve the issues that sparked the investigation.


The timetable for responding to an OCR complaint

The OCR outlines specific milestones districts need to achieve to strive for ADA-compliance. Here’s a rough timetable of what’s in store for you if your school is on the OCR official docket:

  1. You have 30 days to submit a plan to the OCR outlining the policies and procedures that identify the technical standards – WCAG 2.1 is the most universally recognized – that will make your web content accessible.
  2. In that same initial 30-day window, you must designate a ‘web accessibility coordinator’ to ensure all content (including from third parties such as vendors, Youtube and other open sources) is accessible, facilitate training for all content contributors, perform accessibility audits, and inform the entire school community that they should report violations of any web accessibility issues.
  3. Within 60 days of the OCR approving your accessibility plan, you must post your web accessibility policy on your school website, and notify parents, students, staff, prospective students and visitors of the school via written correspondence and email or other notifications.
  4. Within 6 months of OCR’s approval of your accessibility policy, you must conduct the audit and develop a plan and timetable for resolving all issues (corrective action strategy). Within 30 days of OCR’s approval of the corrective action strategy, you must begin implementing the corrective actions. You then have 6 months to make the corrections and certify the changes meet the technical requirements.

Should the Office for Civil Rights come knocking at your door, don’t bristle and fear not. Rather, take it as a wake-up call to initiate real change in how your website can be more accessible.

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Testing and annual checkups

Eliminating communication barriers on your website for people with disabilities entails a thorough examination using WCAG 2.1 standards. Even after making the prescribed fixes to meet ADA-compliance, your school should get a comprehensive web accessibility assessment and conduct annual checkups.

How to prevent an OCR investigation

The best way to prepare for an OCR investigation is to prevent one altogether in the first place. Get out in front of a plan that equips you with the resources and confidence to know you’re doing all you can to stay on the right side of website compliance. Call it preventive accessibility.


1. Know where you stand.

Chances are, your website has some accessibility issues. A poll conducted by the Campus Suite Academy during a webinar on Tips for School Website Accessibility indicated only 5 percent of the school districts know that their content is fully accessible. 61 percent said it’s not, and the balance – 34 percent – didn’t know.


2. Perform an audit.

Using the resources available to you, conduct an audit. Some districts might be able to audit their sites themselves, but most will need help. WCAG 2.1 checklist (available on the WebAIM site) is a good starting point. Check with your website content management system provider for help on ways to not only assess your school website for accessibility, but keep it so going forward.


3. Make a commitment to accessibility.

Jared Smith of the non-profit group WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind) warns that it’s not enough to merely use packaged tools (aka robots) to evaluate your website for accessibility. “Only people can evaluate true accessibility,” says Jared. “Automatic tools have their place and are helpful, but It’s going to take a human.” Tap your disabled users and other 'real users' for their insights into where you website is failing people with disabilities.


4. Design a dependable solution.

When getting serious about accessibility in your district, you may even find it more practical to go back to square one and look at a design solution rather than band-aid your accessibility fixes in a piecemeal fashion. To keep the OCR away, gain a full understanding using resources like this article and those available at the School Website Accessibility Center, and build a website on a foundation of accessibility.

Bad press

The last thing you want to deal with is a complaint that your district was discriminating against any member of the school community. Once your school is “under investigation” by the OCR, the risk of negative publicity is a liability, and the bad press itself can be very damaging to a school’s reputation. As Steve Williams, co-founder of Campus Suite says, “Even if your website currently doesn’t pass muster, if you can demonstrate to OCR and your school community that you have a plan in place, your district can avoid all the bad press that surrounds an investigation.”