Brian Graves Sr. is the 2017 Illinois National School Public Relations Association top public relations director. He serves on the National School Public Relations Association diversity committee. He is currently communications director for the Chicago office of CEL Marketing PR Design.
Over the past four years, school districts across the nation have been challenged, stressed, and in many cases have scrambled to address a flurry of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) complaints regarding website and other electronic communication compliance complaints.
If school district websites are not compliant, the district risks not only the negative PR of an Office for Civil Rights (OCR) complaint, but also the perception of discrimination, expensive legal costs, and the difficulty — or even impossibility — for students and parents with disabilities to access their news and information.
In 2017, the United States Access Board updated Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to ensure federal agency websites are compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) by January 18, 2018. The 1990 ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require that entities receiving federal funding provide people with disabilities the same level of access to programs, services, activities, and information. While the WCAG 2.0 guidelines have not been formally adopted by the government to apply to public school district websites, they have been used in a number of federal consent decrees and settlements. As a result, districts may decide it is in their best interest to voluntarily comply with the guidelines now.
When a district updates its website and other electronic communications, it is important to keep accessibility in mind. Following WCAG 2.0 guidelines allows individuals with visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, neurological, and other disabilities the power to access public information with assistive technology. For example, blind people who cannot see computer monitors may use a screen reader that speaks the text that would normally appear on a monitor. People can use voice recognition software to control their computers with verbal commands if they have difficulty using a mouse, and individuals with other types of disabilities may use other kinds of assistive technology such as closed captioning, large print, or high-contrast settings, to name a few. Assistive technology includes screen readers, Braille encoders, and devices that track eye movement, replacing a keyboard and mouse. New and innovative assistive technologies are introduced every day. However, for these tools to function properly, it is essential that websites and electronic communication tools follow accessibility guidelines.
Sorting out the WCAG 2.0 rules and requirements can be a daunting task for even the most seasoned school district communicators. Whether or not a district has received an OCR complaint, started an ADA content management plan, or done anything beyond image alt tags, there is help. The key is to be proactive, not reactive.
Federal regulations mandating accessibility have been in effect since 2001. The Department of Justice issued a document addressing website accessibility entitled, “Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities” in 2003.
The OCR’s mission is to “ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights throughout the nation’s schools,” and it enforces laws such as the ADA and Section 504.
All public and private programs that receive federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education are prohibited by the OCR from discriminating against individuals based on disability. These entities include all public schools, most public and private colleges, vocational rehabilitation agencies, and libraries. The OCR’s role during a claim is to be a neutral fact-finder and to resolve complaints promptly through a variety of options, including facilitated resolutions and investigations.
In February of 2014, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) entered into a voluntary resolution agreement with the OCR as a result of a federal complaint filed by a Michigan-based education advocate who alleged the MDE was discriminating against people with disabilities. Since then, it is estimated that this individual has filed more than 2,400 OCR complaints about inaccessible websites. Their targets have included school districts, universities, and state departments of education. In March of 2018, the OCR established a new process that will dismiss complaints considered a “continuation of a pattern of complaints” that causes an “unreasonable burden” on the OCR’s resources.
Start early and save the district costs
While recent OCR changes have created some relief, non-compliant school districts are still vulnerable to complaints. Reacting to an OCR complaint and going through the ADA compliance resolution process can be labor intensive and expensive for school districts. The legal fees, planning, website audit, content updating, and training costs can balloon rapidly — and that does not include expenditures for annual website maintenance and training that could be required as part of a resolution. The key is to start the process of making the district website compliant before receiving a complaint; that way if a complaint is filed, the district can show it is making proactive strides towards accessibility.
Doing the research, knowing where to start, and having an affordable and effective plan to address new and existing content is key. It begins with creating an accessibility policy and implementation plan that ultimately includes a website audit and training for webmasters, staff, and teachers. If a school district proactively addresses website compliance early, it will be well on the way to having an accessible website while saving time and money.
Author Brian Graves Sr. led an Illinois school district’s effort to achieve ADA compliance after receiving an OCR complaint. For more information, contact Graves at firstname.lastname@example.org. Links to the resources in this story can be accessed at blog.iasb.com/p/journal-resources.html.