On March 18, 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued new guidance on web accessibility and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), emphasizing its position that school districts and other governmental entities should take steps to ensure that their websites are accessible to people with disabilities to avoid possible discrimination claims.

DOJ takes the view that inaccessible features on a website can constitute an ADA violation potentially on par with a physical access barrier: “Inaccessible web content means that people with disabilities are denied equal access to information. An inaccessible website can exclude people just as much as steps at an entrance to a physical location.” In the case of governmental entities like school districts, websites that have inaccessible features can limit the ability of people with disabilities to participate in important governmental programs.

What can districts do to make their websites more accessible?

DOJ does not set out any specific instructions or regulations on how to ensure websites are accessible. However, the March 18 guidance does give some examples of potential accessibility barriers. Given the examples provided, there are some steps districts can take to help make their websites more accessible:

  1. Make your website compatible with screen readers. Many people who have visual impairments use technology known as screen readers in order to access text on a website.
  2. Avoid using color alone to convey information. Many screen readers may not tell a user what color text is on a screen, so avoid using color alone to convey meaning. For example, if your website contains forms and uses red text to indicate a required field, this may not be conveyed to the user and could constitute an inaccessible feature.
  3. Use strong color contrast. Use high contrasting colors and backgrounds so that people who are color-blind, visually impaired, and/or using screen readers can access text on your screen.
  4. Use text alternatives ("alt text") on images. Use text alternatives (or “alt text”) on images to enable people with visual impairments to understand the content and purpose of images on your websites. This text explains in words the content and context of any images on the page.
  5. Use captions on any videos. Ensure that people with hearing disabilities can access videos by using captions. Alternatively, showing an American Sign Language interpreter may enable users to access live feeds and stored videos.
  6. Make online forms accessible. Ensure that any forms that are fillable online are fully accessible to all users, including those using screen readers.
  7. Make your website keyboard navigable without the use of a mouse. Some people with disabilities are unable to use a mouse or trackpad. Design your website so that it can be navigated using a keyboard.

This list should not be treated as complete or exhaustive. It is merely illustrative of the types of accessibility concerns you should be thinking about in your website design. Making accommodations for disability concerns is by nature an individualized process. You should work with your board counsel if you have unique or specific concerns about an individual case.

What resources are available for school districts?

The March 18 guidance offers some resources for districts to consult for accessibility concern, though it notably does not require districts to adopt or conform to these or any other specific standards. The guidance references the Web Content Accessibility Guide (WCAG) and the Section 508 standards, which is what the federal government uses for its own websites.

What are the possible implications?

Failure to make your websites accessible to people with disabilities can result in costly administrative complaints or even litigation. DOJ as well as the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) have investigated many of these claims in recent years. We encourage districts to review their own websites for accessibility and engage individuals in their communities as well as board counsel to make sure people with disabilities can access their websites and online resources. If you have questions, please contact the division at 1-855-OSBA-LAW.

Posted by John R. Price on 4/1/2022