Is Your School Website Accessible? Looking Beyond Pretty Lights & Colors

By Sean A. Fields, Co-chair of the School Law Group

School Law Snapshot

The Big Picture...

As someone who frequently relies on my wife for technical assistance with my personal laptop, tablet and smartphone, I can be easily distracted by the pretty lights and colors associated with most websites. While visual aesthetics might be a consideration for the design of school district websites, compliance with accessibility requirements under federal law should be a high priority in the design and maintenance of such sites.

The following are some important points about web accessibility under federal law:

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act require public school entities to make website content accessible for disabled individuals.

After investigating complaints in 11 states, the OCR approved settlement resolutions where educational entities agreed to adopt specific measures to ensure online accessibility.

Some of the more common problems identified by the recent OCR investigations were:

  • Important images were missing text descriptions called "alt tags" that describe images to blind and low vision users.
  • Some content could only be viewed by people who could use a computer mouse, resulting in a lack of access for users who are blind or have low vision.
  • The color content of some websites made the text difficult or impossible for users with low vision to view.
  • Video content did not accurately caption the content, resulting in a lack of accessibility for users who are deaf.  

The Close Up...

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibit the exclusion based on a disability from participation in, or being denied benefits, provided by public school entities. Access to benefits and services under federal law includes the ability of disabled individuals to use online services and programs including a school district's website. Because school districts and other public school entities are recipients of federal funds, the OCR's recent focus on web accessibility highlights the need for public schools to adopt measures to ensure that school district websites comply with federal law.

As a result of the OCR investigations, the settlement resolution agreements between educational institutions and the OCR provide direction that school districts can consider for addressing accessibility issues. For example, school districts should conduct an assessment to identify any barriers to access and ensure that any new content that is posted is accessible to people with disabilities. While the accessibility issues identified in the OCR investigations focused largely on visual and hearing impairments, other issues may exist for users whose disability prevents them from accessing content that requires the use of a mouse or arrow key. School entities should also post a notice for disabled individuals about how they can request access to online information or functionality. Additionally, providing individuals who are responsible for website content with training regarding web accessibility is another important proactive measure.

In considering model standards for web accessibility, school districts may consider the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level AA as a guide. Although these standards are not required by law, these guidelines have been previously cited by the OCR and are currently used by other federal agencies. Currently, new regulations are being considered by the Department of Justice. Therefore, while there are measures that school districts should implement, other changes may be required after new federal regulations are adopted. As a result of enhanced awareness about website accessibility, public school entities will continue to have to look beyond pretty lights and colors as they design and maintain their websites.