With the beginning of a new school year just around the corner, assessing whether our educational institutions are fully accessible online is important. While many schools are planning and preparing to have students return and physically attend classrooms again, virtual learning has become a core part of our student’s lives, and that’s not a temporary trend.

In a scramble to get courses online, we find accessibility rarely tops the list of priorities. And why is that? The impact of ignoring accessibility guidelines is damaging to many. As a result, students relying on assistive technologies such as screen readers, keyboard navigation, those with impaired vision, deaf, or students who are color blind may be negatively impacted by schools who treat accessibility as an afterthought. There’s much you can do to make sure your school treats everyone fairly and avoids discrimination cases facing many schools across America.

When does digital accessibility matter in a school environment? Who’s responsible and what can schools do to make sure they are compliant, and provide an environment beneficial to all? UserWay breaks down some of the essential roles played by the schools in their accessibility journey and how an AI-powered widget may be the solution.

Accessibility in Education

Schools are on a mission, not only to educate the future generation but to provide a space where all can reach their potential. Providing safety and a discrimination-free environment is part of the job. The environment in question includes online spaces, such as websites and course platforms. But educators aren’t webmasters, so it’s no surprise many school websites aren’t held to the same standard as the physical learning environment. And those who have worked hard to set a standard might find it hard to keep up with changing technologies or changes to WCAG.

In America, it’s the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that deals with ensuring all schools are discrimination-free, including web accessibility. It’s unfortunate that at the time of writing there are well over 200 pending cases currently under investigation at elementary-secondary and post-secondary schools. A quarter of every discrimination case being investigated by the OCR is related to web accessibility.

School administrators aren’t trying to discriminate against students intentionally. It’s safe to assume that many of these cases are brought forth from negligence or unknowingly breaking the rigorous standard set by the World Wide Web Consortium. And with so many other pressures already placed on school administrators, web accessibility standards often just aren’t top of mind. Those who wish to avoid being added to the OCR’s list of pending cases would be wise to familiarize themselves with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and begin their transformation before the investigation begins.

What Are ADA Requirements for Schools?

When creating any digital source of information, schools must abide by a high standard. Specifically, schools need to be committed to upholding their legal obligations to Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) web accessibility directives. Simply put, the law’s directive to provide equal opportunity for people with disabilities includes your school’s website and digital course material at all times.

Keeping your school ADA compliant is the law in America and with good reason. The National Center for Education Statistics has found 19% of undergraduate students disclosed some form of disability. An inaccessible website may be alienating nearly two out of ten undergrads, but where does one begin in righting this wrong?

Knowing where to invest your time and resources is important. New websites being built need to have a development team experienced in WCAG and old sites will need to be updated to meet WCAG 2.0 A, AA, and AAA requirements. There are many benefits to accomplishing this. To start, doing so means meeting the needs of your students as well as avoiding an investigation. Unfortunately, it’s not easy with many barriers preventing legacy websites from adhering to modern standards. Understanding what an accessible school website looks like is a good place to begin your journey to compliance.

What Does an Accessible School Website Look Like?

It’s common for modern web developers to be aware of how to satisfy the requirements of vision and hearing-impaired students. Screen readers and video captioning have become common and are often the first requirement on the checklist of most schools. But there’s a lot more when it comes to making your school website fully accessible.

For example, some students may not be using a mouse due to a physical disability. Visual flare such as animated graphics or moving quickly might be aesthetic to able-bodied individuals but may impede those with a visual or learning disability. Providing users with fillable forms may sound like a good idea, but they are a common source of frustration for students who cannot use their assistive technologies with inaccessible web forms.

To ensure all students can access your website, it’s important to think ahead and eliminate any obstacles by taking into account the entire spectrum of disabilities. If your site isn’t as accessible as it can be, it may not be fully compliant.

How do I know if my school’s site is compliant or not?

Understanding where your site is non-compliant can be difficult without knowing all the rules and regulations. That’s why it’s important to have all school administrators take the tasks seriously and be aware of what to look for when assessing the site for improvements. Before taking on a full audit, looking at the most common issues can be a good place to start.

For example, most school websites are loaded with PDFs that aren’t compliant. Worse, it’s incredibly common for schools to upload images of documents – it’s faster than transcribing the document, after all. Unknowingly, it’s a common way of preventing screen readers from assisting students.

Images that aren’t adequately described or searchable are another common misstep. Similarly, a lack of visual contrast on pages and videos without closed captioning can make it difficult for certain students to engage with your website.

Some issues that OCR had noted in the letter written to other schools include a lack of skip navigation, which allows users to interact with the site without a mouse, and having drop-down menus which may not always be responsive to tab navigation. UserWay’s accessibility scanner can be a good first step to flagging all violations.

If you’ve identified a couple of issues just by clicking around your site or performing a scan, there’s likely more you’re not aware of. In this case, the only way to be fully compliant is to request a full Web Accessibility Compliance Audit Report

Once the violations have been identified – what now? To fix them yourself, can be both time-consuming and expensive. To save both time and money, UserWay is an incredible option to fast-track your school site to becoming WCAG and ADA compliant.

How UserWay Helps Schools Become Accessible

UserWay has been a popular option for Academic, Educational & School District Websites to become accessible and is already being used by over 1.2 million websites worldwide. Leading academic and educational institutions trust UserWay with their accessibility needs so that they can continue to focus on their core mission of educating students – rather than worrying about websites. Bigger and more established academic institutions are particularly in danger of legal exposure for operating digital content, websites, and apps with possible accessibility violations. But the OCR will investigate all complaints made, even against smaller schools.

Schools can greatly benefit from the help of AI-powered technology to do most of the heavy lifting for them. AI technology can serve as a fast-track solution by interpreting images to create captions, adding accessible labels to input fields on forms, and deciphering all the links, headings, and site structure to make navigation simple. The UserWay widget also includes an overlay that provides options such as text and contrast adjustments, a font for dyslexics, and a screen reader making the web more inclusive for all students.

Compliance takes time and is an ongoing process. Training staff and understanding the why’s of web accessibility is an important first step to ensuring that a high standard is set and that it doesn’t drop over time. Once there is a clear commitment to making your school or academic institution accessible, UserWay can help.

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