In June, a bipartisan assembly of 103 members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter urging the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to provide “guidance and clarity with regard to website accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” The letter highlighted concerns about the number of complaints being filed over the alleged failure to make websites accessible to individuals with disabilities. The representatives urged DOJ to publicly state that legal action under the ADA with respect to websites “is unfair and violates basic due process principles in the absence of clear statutory authority and issuance by the Department of a final rule establishing website accessibility standards.”

Back in 2016, DOJ signaled its intent to establish final rules for state and local governmental entities on the issue of website accessibility. The department posed 123 questions, seeking comment on a wide range of complex issues from technical accessibility requirements to the cost and benefits of the proposed rulemaking. However, in January 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13771, Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs, and in December 2017, DOJ officially announced the withdrawal of the notices of proposed rulemaking pertaining to website accessibility.

In late September 2018, DOJ responded to the congressional plea for regulatory guidance with a firm “no.” In its response, DOJ gave no indication that they would restart the regulatory process that was abandoned last year. Instead, the department reiterated its long-standing position that the ADA applies to websites of places of public accommodation. Additionally, DOJ indicated that, in the absence of regulation, the failure to meet a specific industry standard (e.g. WCAG 2.0 AA) is not necessarily proof of an ADA violation. Instead, DOJ wrote that places of public accommodation have flexibility in the way they ensure their websites effectively communicate to members of the public and do not discriminate based on disability.

In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has also been an active participant in the conversation on school districts’ obligations to make their websites accessible to individuals with disabilities. In 2016 alone, OCR reportedly opened more than 350 nationwide complaint investigations into whether school districts and other educational institutions’ websites were accessible. However, in spring 2018, many of these complaints were dismissed under the OCR's new case processing manual. The manual allows OCR to dismiss allegations or complaints when the complaint is a “continuation of a pattern of complaints previously filed with OCR by an individual or group against multiple recipients or a complaint filed for the first time against multiple recipients that, viewed as a whole, places an unreasonable burden on OCR’s resources.”

Even without applicable federal regulations adopted by DOJ or OCR, school websites should be reviewed with consideration given to accessibility of content to individuals with disabilities. Several organizations offer tools and checklists that web developers can use to check websites for accessibility. Districts also may want to consider training administrators and staff on the importance of website accessibility and of their roles in ensuring that each school district’s website is accessible to users.

Posted by Sara C. Clark on 11/2/2018