Website Accessibility has become a priority topic for schools across the country. Over the last several years, disability community advocates and the U.S. Department of Education have escalated the legal expectations that all digital content on school websites must be accessible to people with disabilities.
More than 56 million people in the U.S. (about one in five people in our country) live with a disability of some sort. Hearing, visual, cognitive and motor disabilities impact an individual's ability to use and interact with websites, and the information and digital content they're looking for. With this potential audience making up 20% of a school's community, public schools have marketing reasons, in addition to the legal requirements, to increase their commitment to making sure their websites are accessible to everyone.
Website accessibility is more than just the right thing to do or a marketing strategy, it is now a legal requirement for any public school that receives federal funding. For districts just getting started, here's the 101.
Know the Legal Requirements and Deadlines
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Sections 508 and 504 requires that people with disabilities not be discriminated against. Specifically, these sections require that communications with people with disabilities be as effective as communications to those without disabilities. This means that to be compliant, school districts must make reasonable modifications to technology tools and websites to ensure equal opportunities and access to content, software, and equipment for people with disabilities. And, the enforcement of these requirements is already underway. By of May 2016, it was reported that 350 educational institutions were being investigated by the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for their website's compliance with these federal requirements.
At the beginning of 2017, the importance of website accessibility at federally funded public educational institutions reached a mission critical level when the U.S. Access Board updated accessibility requirements for information and communication technology (ICT) covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Communications Act. The Access Board set a new deadline that requires websites at any federally funded organizations comply with the updated 508 Standards beginning on January 18, 2018. School districts will now need to watch for implementing regulations related to this deadline from the Department of Education during the coming months.
In the face of these legal requirements and a looming deadline for full website accessibility, public schools should start a compliance review of their websites sooner rather than later. A good place to start is to understand the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG 2.0 guidelines that are used to determine website accessibility compliance under the Section 508 requirements. WCAG 2.0 was developed to give website developers and managers the technical guidelines needed to ensure that web content is fully accessible.
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The transformation of your school website to meet accessibility standards needs to be a focused effort that will require a commitment from district leadership and a sustained effort and team work over time. To tackle the website accessibility transformation, school districts should reevaluate their website provider's capabilities from the accessibility perspective, as well as their product direction and future strategy. Many Content Management System (CMS) providers offer a full set of features and designs but may not support accessibility transformations or offer the tools that can help streamline accessibility changes and support district efforts to keep up with the changing legal requirements in this area.
Community involvement from parent leaders and other community advocacy groups is also an important element as schools evaluate and test their website for accessibility. Involving parent and community leaders in your website accessibility transformation will not only improve the final product but will also demonstrate your school's commitment to making educational and informational resources accessible to all.
Find A Supportive CMS Partner
At Finalsite, supporting their public-school clients through accessibility updates is a top priority. The Finalsite CMS platform is designed to help users post accessible content on their websites, but over time content editors who add material in districts with multiple pages and at individual school websites may have added content that is difficult to access for those with disabilities. That makes the accessibility review and training for content editors key elements in a website accessibility transformation.
In recent months, Finalsite has worked with many clients like East Hartford Public Schools (EHPS) to support their efforts to make accessibility improvements to their district and school websites.
"At East Hartford Public Schools, we are being proactive to update our district website to meet accessibility requirements. Finalsite has been a supportive partner helping us to identify accessibility problems and work on corrections," said Cheryl Looke, Information Technician atEHPS. "We are prioritizing this work to first ensure that all of our images and links meet accessibility standards. Our next steps will be to focus on training site editors and considering a site monitoring tool to help us keep our website accessible for all users."
Fortunately, there are automated website scanning tools that have been developed to identify accessibility issues using the WCAG 2.0 standards. Finalsite has recognized the need to offer its clients website accessibility evaluation tools that do more than just identify errors. They are actively developing partnerships with several different companies that will give school districts that work with Finalsite accessibility to scanning tools that will simplify and streamline website accessibility compliance efforts.
With Finalsite support and the use of the right scanning tools, school districts will have supportive partners they need to guide them through these challenging website accessibility compliance regulations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bernie Rhinerson has an extensive career as a marketing communications professional. He worked as Chief of Staff at the 115,000 student San Diego Unified School District from 2008 to 2013 where the district's website design and accessibility and parent communications were one of his primary responsibilities. During his service as San Diego Unified he managed the district's communication programs and completed a total visual and message rebranding of the district. Since leaving the district in 2013, he has continued to work as a school marketing consultant for education technology companies serving as an advisor about the operational challenges faced by school districts as they seek to implement effective communications programs.