Office of Civil Rights Enforces Web Accessibility

All federally funded learning institutions must strive to avoid excluding anyone from information that requires dissemination.

Web Accessibility
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 60 million Americans — nearly 20 percent of our population — are living with a disability. The vast majority of their disabilities likely affect computer use, including motor difficulties that could impact the ability to operate a keyboard or manipulate a mouse, vision impairment that might involve a form of color blindness or necessitate a screen reader or magnifier, or a hearing impairment that may require captions or transcripts for audio and video media.

With thoughtful Web design, it’s possible for educational institutions to avoid excluding anyone from information that requires dissemination, a fact that is not lost on the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR is the organization charged with protecting civil rights in all federally assisted education programs and prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, age and sex as defined within the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The influence of the contingent of disabled Americans, in terms of the influence it has had on the manner in which website design will be approached in the future, is far greater than one might suspect.

Complaints filed with the OCR against several schools, colleges and universities in 2016 compelled the United States Access Board to adopt several additional criteria to Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act, the section that deals specifically with electronic and information technology. Also included was a rule that requires adherence to the new standards within 12 months from its date of publication in the Federal Register.

“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,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

Compliance guides, available through countless third-party vendors, have been widely distributed to organizations requesting them. The new mandate has created a cottage industry of consultants versed in the specifics of the requirements and equipped to make the necessary changes in their clients’ Web presence. The crux of the situation is that schools have two options for addressing their compliance with the new guidelines: they can develop a new website, or they can update their existing site. In either event, it is important to note the following:

First of all, OCR investigations found that a common denominator existed among each of the initial websites that it investigated after receiving the initial complaints. Each of those sites featured important images that were missing text descriptions, called “alt tags.” Alt tags describe the images to blind and low-vision users who use special software. Other common problems at these sites included:

  • Important content that could only be accessed via the use of a computer mouse, rendering content unavailable to the blind, many who have low vision, and those with disabilities affecting fine motor control.
  • Pages that featured font/background color combinations that made text difficult, if not impossible, for people with low vision to see.
  • Videos that were not accurately or adequately captioned, so they were inaccessible to the hearing impaired.
The OCR has provided some basic recommendations of a range of actions that institutions can take to ensure success in the design, or redesign, process:

  • Affirming their commitment to ensuring that people with disabilities have opportunities equal to those of others to participate in the schools’ programs, services and activities, including those delivered online.
  • Selecting an auditor who has the requisite knowledge and experience to audit content and functionality and identify barriers to access by people with disabilities.
  • Conducting a thorough audit of existing online content and functionality.
  • Adopting policies and procedures to ensure that all new, newly added or modified online content and functionality will be accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Ensuring that any new Web content and functionality added in the interim is fully accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Developing a corrective action plan to prioritize the removal of online barriers.
  • Posting a notice with information about how to request access to online information or functionality that is currently inaccessible.
  • Providing website accessibility training to all appropriate personnel.
It should be noted that each of the organizations initially investigated by the OCR (spanning seven states and one U.S. territory) and found to be in non-compliance expressed an interest in resolving their cases voluntarily. This resulted in settlements that ensured accessibility. “I applaud each of these signatories who have committed to ensuring that their websites are accessible to people with disabilities,” said Lhamon.