Over the past year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has shown an increased focus on public school district websites. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require that public school district websites be accessible to individuals with disabilities. After investigating a number of complaints, OCR ultimately concluded that school website content is often inaccessible to individuals with disabilities, particularly blind and visually impaired users, deaf or hard-of-hearing users, and users with disabilities that affect motor control and their ability to use a mouse.

In February and March of 2016, OCR reviewed complaints filed against 11 different educational organizations in the United States and in one U.S. territory, raising website accessibility issues under Section 504 and the ADA. Section 504 and the ADA require public school districts to provide individuals who have qualified disabilities with equal access to programs, services, and activities unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of the programs. OCR has indicated on numerous occasions that accommodations must be made to district websites and other online resources in accordance with Section 504 and the ADA.

The most common problems OCR identified with websites are as follows:

  • Images with no accompanying text descriptions, or “alt tags”
  • Navigation that requires the use of a mouse
  • Videos that lack accompanying audio, transcript, or closed captioning
  • Color combinations that make text difficult to read

On June 29, 2016, OCR announced that it had reached voluntary agreements with all 11 organizations, which now have 18 months to resolve the issues under the terms of the agreements. The agreements contained mandates such as development of corrective action plans, completion of a thorough audit to ensure access and functionality, adoption of policies and procedures to ensure accessibility to all content added in the future, and posting notices to disabled individuals that contain information on how an individual can request access to online information or inaccessible content, among other things.

Interestingly, the University of Montana conducted a student survey after receiving an OCR complaint in 2012 about web accessibility from students enrolled in online coursework. The survey results indicated that many of the complaints were caused by a misunderstanding or lack of awareness about available accessibility options. So, along with other ameliorative measures, the university invested resources to educate its student body about web accessibility. The university reached a formal resolution with OCR in 2014.

Catherine E. Lhamon, OCR’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, weighed in on the matter when she stated, “As schools, school districts, states, and territories turn to the Internet as a way to provide relevant and up-to-date information to their audiences in a cost-effective manner, they must make sure they are not inadvertently excluding people with disabilities from their online programs, services, and activities.”

OCR’s recent action on this important accommodations issue highlights the need for public school districts to conduct a formal review of website and social media programs to determine whether content is indeed accessible to individuals who suffer from disabilities. Along the same line, districts should regularly assess all types of technology use during school and extracurricular activities to further consider whether the chosen technologies interfere in any way with a disabled individual’s ability to access programs or participate in school activities. Board policies should be reviewed as part of this process. School districts are encouraged to consult with legal counsel to discuss the implications of this important topic and obtain resources that may further assist with compliance under Section 504 and the ADA.