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School Website Accessibility: Considerations for Getting Started
Angelo Otterbein

Website accessibility and compliance are no longer emerging issues. They are top-of-mind across industries — and if you haven’t gotten on board with compliance yet, here are some tips for getting started. 

Working in education, you are familiar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which has been around since 1975. The Federal legislation ensures students with disabilities are provided a Free, Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). You’re likely also familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990, which prohibits discrimination based upon disability. 

Although these two very significant laws have been around for decades, it wasn’t until 2016 that ADA was amended to include regulations specific to school and government websites. Yes, you must ensure that your buildings are handicapped accessible, and that the students you educate have equal access to education. You must ALSO ensure the same safeguards are in place for your websites. 

Many school districts and public universities navigated this process between 2016-18, when a string of lawsuits were filed through the Office of Civil Rights for non-compliant school websites across the country. If you found your district among the first to deal with these complaints and the website work that followed, you may agree it was a somewhat scary and uncertain time. Many website providers and school communicators didn’t know much about accessibility until a lawsuit was staring them in the face. 

Now in 2020, schools and website providers have had years to learn what it means to have an accessible website, and what steps to take to make sure yours meets the mark. 

Still not convinced that you need to dedicate the time and energy to website accessibility? Some schools, universities and districts are willing to roll the dice until the OCR knocks on their door before taking action. This is a bad public relations AND financial move. Do you want to be written up in the newspaper for being slapped with an OCR complaint and potentially pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and website corrections? Seattle Public Schools was sued for its inaccessible website and paid between $665,400 and $815,400 to settle it! (Source: Website Accessibility Settlement Reached with Seattle Public Schools). If you get started before a lawsuit strikes, you’ll have a much easier and less expensive time reaching compliance.

Even if an OCR complaint has come and gone, some schools and districts feel they’ve checked the accessibility box and don’t maintain it moving forward. We strongly disagree with this practice, not just from a legal perspective but also a human one. If you haven’t already made your website compliant with ADA, it’s not too late.

Here are three considerations for schools and districts getting started. 

  1. It’s More Than Just the Law: Accessibility for Ethics and Equity
  2. Fixing an Inaccessible Website: How to Make the Process Easier
  3. Post-Compliance: Maintaining Accessibility


It’s more than just the law: Accessibility for ethics and equity

If you are like most schools and districts, your mission, vision and values statements mention equity or equal opportunities for students. We don’t say this to sound cliche. Of course your school district should value equity and ethics! Providing opportunities to ALL students is part of the deep rooted history of public schools, and is something you should be proud of. Would you operate a public school without wheelchair accessible entrances and bathrooms? No? Then why would you operate a public school website that doesn’t have accessible access to information for people who have physical or cognitive impairments?

Part of the hang-up with schools who aren’t yet on board with website accessibility is the lack of understanding. Who is the target audience the accessibility measures are serving? Primarily, web accessibility is for all disabilities that affect a person’s access to your website, including visual, cognitive, auditory and physical impairments — about ⅕ of the world's population.

For example, if a person relies on a screen reader to navigate a website, instead of using a mouse or trackpad, is he or she able to click through each page without difficulty? If a person with a vision impairment is visiting your website, can he or she decipher what is featured in your photo gallery? These are just a few examples of who web accessibility measures help, and why their needs should matter to you and your school district. 

Fixing an Inaccessible Website: How to Make the Process Easier

By now, we hope you’re convinced that website accessibility is not just for legal compliance, but also best practice from an equity and human perspective. So what now? This is a common place for school professionals to feel stuck and often fall off track, as this is not common terrain you have navigated before. 

If you are just getting started with website accessibility, the good news is you are ahead by being behind. Many schools and web providers have already gone through this process, so there are an abundance of resources to work with. 

Lean on Your Website Provider

We all know time and resources are limited for school districts, so before you go too far down the road on your own trying to figure out website accessibility, your first call should be your website provider. Having a provider that is knowledgeable in this area will be a game-changer for you, as they likely have an abundance of experience and advice regarding website compliance. 

A reputable school website provider like Finalsite will be able to walk you down the path to compliance step-by-step, from the initial discussion, to education and training, to complete resolution. 

Don’t Rule out a Full Redesign

If your website hasn’t been redesigned in the last four to five years, it might actually be less stressful, time consuming and expensive to just start from scratch through a full redesign. Websites built prior to the ADA compliance legislation did not follow the same design structure and guidelines that they do today. Trying to fix a site built in a previous era may not be worth the effort. 


(We have a library of content dedicated to this issue that will serve as a useful reference as well!)

Post-Compliance: Maintaining Accessibility

Too often, we hear of school districts who resolve an OCR complaint and go back to their old ways regarding website accessibility. Just because the OCR has given you the green light does not mean your accessibility journey is over! 

It is not out of the realm of possibility for the OCR to revisit your school district’s site and flag it again down the road. That’s right, you could be faced with a second lawsuit if accessibility is not maintained. Moreover, let’s revisit the first point from this post: equity and ethics! Legal matters aside, it is the right thing to do to ensure all of your content remains accessible for your visitors. 

Some of you may be wondering what is left to do once your site is considered compliant? Shouldn’t you be good to go from there? The short answer is no, website accessibility is never “done.” You create new content on your website every day. Every new image, announcement and calendar item added must also be accessible, and that ownership lies with the content contributors, not the website provider. 

The good news is, this doesn’t need to be a daunting task. Finalsite Composer has built in accessibility tools that will flag content that falls outside of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and offers suggestions to resolve those issues. Finalsite also partners with AudioEye whose product includes an accessibility toolbar to make website content accessible to all visitors, as well as an auto-remediation service that detects accessibility errors and fixes them.

There are additional best practices for website managers that will save you time and energy down the road that you can read more about here.

Key Takeaway

Website compliance and accessibility is more than just a legal requirement for school districts and public universities. Having accessible web content speaks to your school’s views on equity, inclusion, and ethics, too. Although it can seem overwhelming, the steps needed to get to accessibility don’t have to be daunting. Getting started is the hardest part! 

Not sure where to start? Finalsite is here to help! Click here to Get Started.

angelo otterbein headshot

Angelo graduated valedictorian from St. Paul's School in Baltimore, MD and from Princeton University. Despite getting his degree in creative writing and English Literature, it generally takes some doing to keep him from programming and breaking websites. Just after graduating, he started Silverpoint, and grew it to over 300 schools worldwide before merging with Finalsite in 2013.

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