U.S. Education Department Cracks Down on Website Accessibility in Schools

Santa Fe Public Schools has 18 months to make existing webpages accessible.

by Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican / June 30, 2016
The Santa Fe Public Schools website is not accessible for people with disabilities.

(TNS) — The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is giving Santa Fe Public Schools 18 months to make its website accessible to people with disabilities.

The federal office began investigating the district after a discrimination complaint in mid-February said some of the district's webpages are not accessible to disabled people.

For example, the Santa Fe district does not always supply text descriptions with visual images so that blind and low-vision users can understand them. And some webpages are only accessible by using a mouse, an obstacle for blind and visually impaired people.

Because the school district agreed to resolve the complaint, not contest it, the Office of Civil Rights gave the district a year and a half to make sure all of its website content is accessible.

Theresa Baca, chief of staff for Santa Fe Public Schools, did not return a call seeking comment on the issue Wednesday.

Advocates for disabled people said the problem of web access persists among government agencies at all levels and needs to be corrected.

"It is incredibly common for that to happen, even though it is illegal for public organizations to have websites that are not accessible," Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of the Maryland-based group RespectAbility, said by phone Wednesday.

She said public agencies may not be aware of federal laws regarding website accessibility. Other entities, she said, "feel it is more complicated and expensive to do than it really is."

Curtis Chong, manager of Access Technology for the New Mexico Commission for the Blind, understands the frustration of blind people who cannot fully access a website. Chong himself is blind.

"The two things that drive us the most crazy are websites where you cannot use the keyboard to interact, and if there is a picture which is meant to convey very important information that has no alternative text to tell you what that information is," Chong said.

He said reworking a website to make it accessible to disabled people may be expensive. "Suppose you built a building, did all the work, finished it and forgot to put the access ramps in. Yeah, there's gonna be extra costs," he said.

Mizrahi said similar problems can plague deaf or hard-of-hearing computer users if they come across online videos involving speech and music that are not accompanied by written text.

Mizrahi and Chong said 18 months is adequate for the the district to meet federal guidelines.

"It's as fair as it can possibly be in this complicated, imperfect world we live in," Chong said. "But it shouldn't go beyond 18 months because if someone has been waiting to do something on the district website and now has to wait another 18 months to get it done ... it does get frustrating."

The Office of Civil Rights will monitor the district's progress in making necessary changes and following the terms of the resolution. This includes developing a corrective action plan to remove online barriers to disabled people, posting a notice to people with disabilities about how to request access to online information that is currently inaccessible and making all new website content accessible.

Santa Fe Public Schools was not the only educational entity flagged by the Office of Civil Rights for a website that can be inaccessible to disabled people.

It also reached agreements with the Juneau School District in Alaska, the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind, the Nevada Department of Education, the Oregon Department of Education and several other organizations around the country.

Mizrahi said educational organizations aren't the only ones limiting web access to people with disabilities.

She said Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is in the same boat. And until recently, so was Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Clinton's campaign staff have since remedied the situation, Mizrahi said.

©2016 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.