Accessibility: Beyond the School Website

Schools today use a variety of methods to communicate with families, a majority of these being digital tools like school websites, social media and weekly newsletters. Given that two thirds of the population owns a smart phone, and over half of them receive news on their mobile device (Pew Research Center, 2015), digital communication is often regarded as the most effective way to reach families, and is increasingly being used as the primary method to share information and facilitate engagement at schools.

Digital tools have made communication easier for those of us who can use them without restriction, meaning a physical or cognitive condition doesn’t hinder our usage. Those who can’t fully access digital tools, however, may not feel their benefit. A 2012 Census Bureau report gives the following insights on how many people struggle with digital communication, and how their various impairments might impact accessibility:

  • 19.9 million (8.2%) have difficulty lifting or grasping. This could, for example, prevent them from using a mouse, forcing them to tab through websites with the keyboard.
  • 15.2 million (6.3%) have a cognitive, mental, or emotional impairment that limits their ability to communicate digitally.
  • 8.1 million (3.3%) have a vision impairment. These people may rely on a screen magnifier or a screen reader, or might have a form of color blindness, making it difficult to decipher text from background images.
  • 7.6 million (3.1%) have a hearing impairment.  They might rely on transcripts and/or captions for audio and video media.

These numbers are indicative of how many people are impacted by the limitations of digital communication, but to truly understand their user experience we encourage you to view the following two videos:

The American Disability Act (ADA) recognizes the challenges presented by digital communication, and stipulates how digital tools are configured so information is accessible to those with disabilities ranging from visual or auditory impairment to physical and/or cognitive impairment. For communications to meet compliance standards content must:

  • Be available to the senses of sight, hearing and/or touch
  • Be understandable and designed to help users avoid making mistakes
  • Be able to be used reliably by a variety of users and technologies
  • Be accessible by operable interface forms, controls and navigation

Federal regulations dictate how public schools communicate with their families, and this communication, including websites, is subject to ADA Compliance. But many schools struggle just to update their websites regularly, much less ensure their compliance to what is a comprehensive list of requirements.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) recognizes that many families aren’t being sufficiently served by digital communication, and they are pushing for ADA compliance going forward. As schools develop and implement their digital marketing plans, internally or with the assistance of a third party, it’s important to adhere to the standards put forth by the ADA to ensure all families, regardless of disability, can access the relevant information.

Problem

The term “disability” is described differently by various national data sources, making it difficult to determine how many school age children have parents with a disability. However, the figure was estimated at 6.2% or 4.1 million adults in the U.S. in 2012 (Through the Looking Glass, 2012). This figure does not include the number of grandparents or other relatives with disabilities who are a child’s primary caregiver.

The number of grandparents acting as primary caregivers has been increasing rapidly since 1999, with a study that year estimating that caregiving grandparents had a greater than 50% chance of having a limitation in activity compared to non-caregiving grandparents (Minkler and Fullyer-Thomson, 1999). Additionally, many caregivers with a disability may not want to label themselves as having a disability, thus the number of caregiving adults with special needs could well be higher than the 4.1 million people we know about.

Despite the known number of caregiving adults with a disability, most school websites are not ADA compliant. Yet just as a school facility is required to be wheelchair accessible and support all learners, a school’s communications tools must not discriminate against people with disabilities. To the untrained eye, websites likely appear inclusive of everybody, but color schemes, misplaced or mislabeled photos, even the use of Flash, could render a site un-usable to people with visual impairments, colorblindness or photosensitivity.

Building an ADA compliant site is easily done by design experts, but the reality is most schools don’t have the budget for these services, and often create their own. Although there are a variety of tools schools can use to build a website, ranging from simple website templates to more elaborate custom-developed websites, the lack of clarity regarding what constitutes an ADA compliant site for schools means there is no guarantee these tools will result in an ADA compliant website.

Schools often don’t realize when using these web development tools that they may not be building an ADA compliant site, and unless the school serves a family that needs additional accessibility it likely doesn’t realize the site isn’t up to par, which can be a costly mistake. Failure to have an ADA compliant site can have unforeseeable results, such as decreased enrollment or costly remedial measures to update a non-compliant site. This makes it critical for schools to build their digital communication strategy, including their websites, with ADA requirements in mind.

Resolution

The US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has recently made a significant push to ensure all school websites are ADA compliant by January 2018. There are three levels of ADA compliance, A, AA, and AAA, which essentially grade a website’s accessibility. In broad terms the grades can be described as follows:

  • A – the site is very user-friendly, with none of the web pages deemed to have accessibility errors. Forms are clear, pages flow in a logical manner, and links are clearly identified
  • AA – the site meets all the requirements of an A rating and also provides audio descriptions for visual content, offers multiple ways to navigate the site, and has the ability to resize the text to 200%
  • AAA – meets all the requirements of an AA rating and also provides sign language and extended audio translation for video content, offers a text alternative to videos and saves user data when re-authenticating

The OCR does not specify what rating schools should have, but according to the WC3 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, “a Web content technology is ‘accessibility supported’ when users’ assistive technologies will work with the Web technologies, AND when the accessibility features of mainstream technologies will work with the technology.” Essentially this means websites should be built so people with disabilities can access the same information, participate in the same interactions, and take advantage of the same benefits and services within the same timeframe as their non-disabled peers (ADA Section 504).

The following resources are suggested to build and monitor the accessibility of your school website:

Recommendation Whether or not schools have plans to update an existing site or create a new one, they should check the compliance rating of their sites. There are resources schools can use to do this themselves, such as WAVE, a web accessibility evaluation tool that allows users to put in their website’s address and get an immediate sense of accessibility issues. However, while this tool can help identify any issues so steps can be taken to make improvements, it is important to note that the most comprehensive site review is a professional developer, or the OCR itself. Proactively reaching out to them for input is an efficient way to ensure compliance.

Given the push by the OCR to ensure school websites are ADA compliant, schools will need to monitor and implement OCR recommendations for all communications on a regular basis. The following steps outline a process schools can take to ensure all their school communication tools, including their website, meet ADA Compliance guidelines.

  1. Conduct Training – identify all staff, teachers involved in regular school communications to ensure they understand accessibility requirements and why this is a focus for your school.
  2. Perform Communications Audits – evaluate all tools your school uses to communicate with families including public-facing school websites, teacher pages and other apps used to share information. Consider using an accessibility evaluation tool such as the one listed above on your school website to get an immediate sense for accessibility issues with your website.
  3. Revise Communications Process – create a plan to revise your school website and other communications processes to ensure ADA compliance.
  4. Review Communications Plan Annually – integrate school communications accessibility checks into your annual school plan to ensure compliance moving forward.
  5. Ask all families, not just those with disabilities, how they prefer to receive communications. This encourages feedback to facilitate communication without singling out those who may not want to draw attention to their specific needs.

Achieving ADA Compliance with your digital communications is a feasible goal with proper planning and regular review. The simple act of making your communications accessible to all can have a significant impact to families who want to be engaged with the school.

Join the Discussion

Caregivers want to be engaged with the school, but often times they need an invitation from the school itself to feel comfortable interacting with them, and that invitation can be as simple as making information accessible to all. What steps has your school taken to help staff understand the importance of ADA Compliant communication? Where can you make improvements?

Disclaimer

The information contained in this article is meant to bring awareness to the fact that not all users can navigate websites in the same way. While we have attempted to demonstrate how schools can create ADA compliant websites, the information contained herein is not meant to serve as a complete guideline for creating a compliant site. Please visit the resources listed below for a thorough list of compliance requirements.

Resources

Anderson, M., Pew Research Center, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/04/01/6-facts-about-americans-and-their-smartphones

W3C and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. Retrieved from https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/ and https://www.w3.org/TR/UNDERSTANDING-WCAG20/conformance.html#uc-levels-head

Preston, P., PhD – National Center for Parents with Disabilities, Through the Looking Glass, International Encyclopedia of Rehabilitation, Parents with Disabilities http://cirrie.buffalo.edu/encyclopedia/en/article/36/

Kaye, H. Steven, Current Demographics of Parents with Disabilities in the U.S.Berkeley, CA: Through the Looking Glass, 2012. https://www.lookingglass.org/national-services/research-a-development/126-current-demographics-of-parents-with-disabilities-in-the-us

Web Accessibility for Developers, WCAG 2.0 checklists. Retrieved from https://www.wuhcag.com/wcag-checklist/

Accessibility Statistics, Interactive Accessibility, 2012. Retrieved from  http://www.interactiveaccessibility.com/accessibility-statistics

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