When my district received a letter from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) telling us that our website was under review for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we were panicked. We had been seeing some information about ADA compliance and school websites on the news and through our state department of education, but we were just starting to explore the issue when the letter arrived.
Our district is small—we have about 5,500 students in nine buildings—and like many small districts, our staff tend to wear multiple hats. We don’t have a dedicated webmaster, so we dove into educating ourselves on web accessibility and compliance, including asking OCR exactly what they needed from us and bringing our school board attorney into the process to make sure we were following the law.
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Fortunately, we were already working with a content management system (CMS) provider, Edlio, to update our website. They explained that ADA compliance is based on the Web Content Accessibility Standards (WCAG), which includes multiple levels of accessibility, and helped us to understand and meet the guidelines to achieve WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility. We collaborated with them to put together a plan regarding what needed to change, how to accomplish it, and a timeline for getting it all done.
The two biggest issues that OCR had noted in the letter were:
• A lack of skip navigation, which allows users interacting with the site without a mouse—using only a keyboard or a screen reader—to tab through menu items at the top of the page; and
• Drop-down menus, which are also not responsive to tab navigation.
We had no idea these features made our site inaccessible for some users. Without using screen readers ourselves, it wasn’t on our radar. Fortunately, Edlio updated the site to eliminate those hurdles for users fairly easily.
A growing challenge
Unfortunately, the list of changes OCR wanted to see made to our site began to grow larger than those two items. It was like pulling a thread on a sweater. What started as a problem with three pages on our site came to envelope our entire district website and all of our schools’ individual sites. To stay on top of the situation, we maintained frequent communication with OCR and kept Edlio in the loop on what they were expecting us to do.
It was, of course, maddening and stressful, but it was also a blessing in disguise. Our old site had become a bit of a dinosaur. It was like an old filing cabinet that had been stuffed with so much content that many things just got buried and forgotten. What began as a simple project to update a couple features to ensure compliance became a comprehensive plan to not just ensure our site was universally accessible but more streamlined and easier for all users to navigate.
For example, we found that most of the people coming to our website were looking for the same information, such as how to register their child, locating the school calendar, or trying to find the lunch menu. Instead of having those linked from multiple places on the site, we were able to streamline it all as part of the project of ensuring ADA compliance.
Throughout this process, our staff had numerous questions about the new sites and needed to be kept abreast of what the changes were and why we were making them. After all, none of us are web compliance experts. To get everyone up to speed, we held meetings for employees who managed their school websites. Each group could bring up their website and we went through page by page, section by section, to identify things that needed to be addressed. It might be a lack of alt text on images, hyperlinks with text that said “click here” instead of something descriptive, or perhaps some documents that were uploaded as images instead of PDFs.
How our district navigated ADA website compliance
It was a lot of work for them because this was not their primary responsibility. We had to give them time, but aside from that, all they needed was the information about how to keep their school sites in compliance.
I also met with division administrators and building principals to explain the situation and the plan for bringing all of our sites into compliance. They needed to understand the “why” and support the webmasters who were updating the website.
Once the work on our new site was completed, we did receive some feedback from users noting that they liked the new website. It was gratifying to know that, after all the stress of receiving that OCR letter, we had a website that worked for all our potential users. We also received another letter from OCR notifying us that they were impressed with how seriously we had taken the issue of compliance and how diligently we had worked to correct the issues that they’d uncovered.
Compliance is an ongoing process, so we encourage users to flag any issues they come across, and we’re able to fix those with the tools we have and the information we learned from Edlio. Moving forward, we’re confident that we’ll remain in compliance because we have features to help, such as settings that warn users if they upload an image without alt text, and we know where to turn if we need help again.
If you’re ever in the position of receiving your own letter from the Office of Civil Rights, don’t panic. Make sure the lines of communication are open with OCR, tap a partner to help you navigate the process, and try to reframe it as an opportunity to improve your website for everyone involved.
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