If your school receives public funding and is accessible by “the public” at large, your website may be the focus of an accessibility review by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). Web accessibility is drawing lots of attention from K12 school leaders as OCR reviews have picked up in the last 18 months, but the recent round of visibility isn’t something “out of the blue”. We are seeing concern about the web because the Internet is a main conduit for learning, and as Americans we care about ensuring access for all our kids.
In this post, I’d like to give a quick background to set the stage for why these changes are important and then outline some practical steps school leaders can do to make sure we continue to deliver equitable access to our students.
The ESEA Act of 1965 statement of purpose reads, “The purpose of this title is to provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.” With those lines, education policy in the US codified an ethical stance: learning opportunities were to be provided for students of all circumstances. The journey towards faithfulness of that stance has been long, and is long from complete.
Along the way, we’ve seen additional provisions of US law clarify the whys and hows of ESEA. Clarifications important to our topic today came with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and again with IDEA in 1975. Under these laws, children with disabilities and the parents who cared for them received protections and support in order to see that they had access to “a fair, equitable, and high-quality education.”
School leaders around the US have been supporting both of these acts for some time through delivering individualized education programs (IEPs) for students, connecting parents to support programs, and developing teachers in accessible curriculum design programs like Universal Design for Learning. The educational technology market has responded with a number of innovations, creating an assistive technology vertical that has provided educational opportunities to numerous children previously incapable of participation in the classroom.
And in 2015, the Department of Justice highlighted a new area of concern in the delivery of equitable education for all: the web itself.
The Web as Educational Material
In 2015, the Department of Justice opened up its interpretation of Section 508 to include “public accommodations” and their websites. Under these new statements, individuals who formerly requested “equivalent alternatives” to content and services provided through websites could now request that the websites be changed to better accommodate assistive technologies. Not long after the Department of Justice released these statements, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) began investigations into ADA compliance of school websites.
The first set of educational institutions to hear from individuals who needed this access were institutions of higher education. Many of these schools were using sophisticated learning management systems, so web accessibility was not only an issue of consuming information, but also of equitable participation in the learning process.
As higher education began to move in a productive direction, individuals with disabilities began to see that the same limitations existed in the schools where their children attended. Large K12 school districts began to hear from parents that much of their web-driven communication and digital curricula were inaccessible to children and parents who accessed the web through assistive technology.
Action Steps for Leaders
1. Do some background reading.
AudioEye, a digital accessibility platform, has aggregated a number of higher ed and K12 resolution agreements on its website. Cielo24, another web accessibility provider, has archived a similar list. Reading through these resolutions, and summarizing them for your team, will give you a good sense of the inconvenience badly designed web resources place on people with disabilities, as well as the seriousness with which the Office of Civil Rights is treating these compliance issues.
A common thread within these resolution agreements is the presence of a new web standard, which will most likely take the place of the Section 508 provisions: the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0). The WCAG 2.0 Standard is arranged into A, AA, and AAA success criteria levels. Compliance occurs at the A level. Most school resolution agreements seek to comply with both A and AA levels. The United States Access Board has gathered a helpful matrix comparing WCAG 2.0 and Section 508 provisions. The success criteria levels are listed along the left side.
2. Evaluate your website and your digital curricula.
On the website side, partners are emerging with tools that help this process. AudioEye, a web accessibility technology company, offers free website evaluations as introductions to their automated tools. WebAIM, a company that focuses on assessment and training for accessibility, allows individuals to check their own site, page by page, through a tool called WebAIM Wave. Taken together, and paired with a review of the matrix above, a technology leader can come to a sense of where a school website is in terms of accessibility and can begin the conversation with development resources on how to best remediate issues.
A school leader should also begin asking any digital curriculum provider what sureties they can provide that their resources will be accessible to students and parents who need access. These sureties should be gathered in writing and kept on file in the case a student begins to have issues with those services. Going forward, curriculum leaders should include accessibility into their conversations with digital content providers.
3. Develop your front line.
Accessibility isn’t an issue only for your web developer or technology department. Many schools now have websites that are updated by teachers, coaches, and even students. All of these community members should be made aware of the importance of web accessibility. It should be a mandatory, and annual, part of the training of anyone posting content to a school or district website.
In sum, accessibility is a deep-rooted conviction in US education policy, one that has made learning a possibility for thousands of children. Web accessibility is an important next step in continuing that tradition.