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What happens when your school website isn’t accessible?
What happens when your school doesn’t meet website accessibility requirements? You could receive a letter from the Office of Civil Rights, also known as an OCR letter. Here’s what follows after a complaint is filed and a letter is mailed.
Several years ago an OCR letter to a school seemed like an elusive thing. A tech director always knew of a district who knew a district “down the road” who may have received an OCR letter and would refer to that school as, “really going through it.” Today we hear of entire states enforcing school website accessibility and a scramble for districts to learn about accessibility, implement it, and avoid the shameful and inconvenient OCR letter. Do we ever hear the follow up or outcome after these schools receive the letter besides the initial stress? Or is it something we don’t talk about anymore (like Bruno—or COVID)? No school wants to be accused of being discriminatory, and no school wants to do a website overhaul when they weren’t planning for it, either.
This information below is based on a phone conversation with the Office of Human Rights’ Education department.
What’s involved when making a complaint?
Complaints about a school district's website accessibility are made in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights website. The complaint could be as small as they can’t find the school website accessibility statement or as large as none of the photos have alt text, or the calendar is not accessible. All complaints have to have happened within the past 180 days (anything happening before that would not be valid). People filling the complaint are also asked what they would like to see done.
Why would you be receiving a letter?
Any school that’s receiving federal funding because of Section 504 must not discriminate against anyone with disabilities—and the school website falls under this guidance. A school receives a letter from OCR because someone has found the school’s website not accessible to meet their disability.
An individual filing a complaint could be trying to learn the following information about your school but having trouble:
Knowing when the football game is because your calendar is embedded and not integrated and their screen reader isn’t picking up on it
Hearing the weekly video message from the principal, or reading the closed captions or transcript
Tabbing through a site instead of using a mouse
Understanding the photos of the 8th grade field trip to Washington D.C.
Who receives the letter?
In a centralized district, the letter would go to the Superintendent of the district. If it’s a charter school, then the letter would go to the head of school. The letter is also sent to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. This would not be the best thing to happen during an election year, or around the time salaries are being reevaluated, as you can imagine. Now, anything on your district’s technology To Do list gets pushed to the bottom and the OCR letter becomes the priority. Say goodbye to implementing that new LMS this year.
Where are these complaints coming from?
Lawyers searching for ADA errors on corporate sites frequently sue companies. I asked the OCR how many of these complaints are from people with disabilities vs. from lawyers. The answer was that most complaints are from advocacy organizations reviewing public websites making the complaints, but some are from individuals as well. Because it’s a public school, anyone can make a complaint, and the accessibility problem needs to be fixed.
What happens after your school receives an OCR letter?
It feels like there’s this question of how much trouble am I in? Because schools want to be inclusive and non discriminatory, they generally want to fix the problems. Therefore, this should be looked at as maintenance. For example, if the fire department says you need to trim branches back from your roof, everyone is on the same page of not wanting the roof to catch on fire. For accessibility, schools and the Department of Education are on the same page of wanting to create an equitable learning environment for all students. Your school and the Office of Civil Rights will enter into an agreement of what needs to be fixed, including a timeline. Your school will need to show those agreed changes were made in that timeline.
What’s the typical timeline for making the changes?
The timeline is based on the magnitude of the complaint. If the entire website needs to be overhauled, then the timeline could be as long as 18 months. It would be shorter if there are just sections of the website that need to be fixed. The timeline is adjusted differently per complaint.
What happens if the school does nothing?
By receiving funding from the federal government, your school or district is agreeing to obey the federal civil rights laws. If your school chooses to do nothing about website accessibility, then the Office of Civil Rights will rule that federal funding should be removed. I asked how many schools have lost funding from not fixing their website, and the answer was none. All schools who have received an OCR letter have cooperated to make their website ADA accessible.
How can your school avoid receiving an OCR letter?
It’s safe to say every school is one OCR letter away from being completely in the weeds. Schools can make sure they are partnered with a website company that provides built-in tools for maintaining accessibility. These would include:
Accessibility requirement setting
Don’t let your website contributors decide if they are going to add Alt text; make it a setting so they have to add it before publishing a page.
Alt text built in for all photos
This should include photos added to online forms to make them ADA accessible.
A tool that automatically generates captions on uploaded videos. Make sure you are able to edit the captions. It’s a bonus if a transcript is also provided. (This also helps with SEO!)
A recommended color palette for accessibility with color contrast helps web admins have some creativity on the page while still being accessible.
For a site to be accessible, it has to provide the same experience on multiple devices.
Accessibility includes language translation. Features on your website that are integrated, or content created directly on the site, will be easily translatable.
Starting from scratch?
Make sure the company you’re partnering with allows continuous support for accessibility, as you will be continuously updating your school’s site.
As of February 26, 2022, there were over 1,000 cases currently pending with the Office of Civil Rights, and of those 18% were due to website or online course access or effective communication. Build accessibility into your website updates, and your school doesn’t have to be part of this statistic.