WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) – School districts and educational institutions across the country take heed: The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has recently opened as many as 350 nationwide investigations to determine whether educational agencies’ websites are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
To understand what this might mean for school districts, colleges and universities, Legal Newsline recently interviewed attorney Patrick Andriano, whose practice with Reed Smith focuses on educational law. He regularly counsels school boards in claims arising out of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504 and the ADA.
“We have been paying close attention to this issue for our school board clients,” Andriano told Legal Newsline. “While I’m aware of the ed-tech litigation with Seattle Public Schools, the vast majority of cases that I have seen regarding school districts and website accessibility have been administrative investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.”
The Seattle case Andriano references involved a settlement last fall in a lawsuit brought against the city’s school district by Noel Nightingale and co-plaintiff, the National Federation of the Blind.
The district agreed to take several steps to make ed-tech used in schools accessible to blind students, faculty and parents.
The measures to which the district agreed to enact included making websites accessible to blind people through existing technology; hiring or appointing an accessibility coordinator; conducting an accessibility auto of the district’s technology, programs, services and activities and developing a remediation plan for issues uncovered in the audit; creating and maintaining a portal for “accessible education resources” to help faculty and staff communicate effectively with disabled persons and ensure accessibility of educational content; and to provide information about disability policies and services to students, faculty and parents with disabilities.
The district also agreed to add language to the system’s procurement requests and contracts requiring vendors to provide specific information about the compliance of their products and services with federal laws (such as the ADA) and accessibility guidelines, and requiring vendors to indemnify the school system for discrimination complaints resulting from inaccessibility of their products; and train district officers, school administrators, faculty, and other key personnel on applicable laws, electronic and information technology accessibility guidelines, and the creation of accessible content.
Fortunately for most districts, Andriano says the OCR investigations can help districts identify compliance issues before they are threatened with litigation.
“If, as part of its investigation, OCR finds that a school district’s website has accessibility problems, OCR and the school district typically enter into a voluntary resolution agreement that outlines the specific steps the school district will take to resolve the OCR’s concerns,” Andriano said.
“For instance, OCR recently investigated concerns under Section 504 and Title II of the ADA that individuals with disabilities, particularly those with visual impairments, could not access a district’s website in Virginia Beach, Va., public schools.
"As part of the resolution agreement, the district agreed to undertake an assessment of its entire website to identity and correct accessibility concerns, develop and implement a website accessibility policy, and provide training on website accessibility to appropriate employees.”
Andriano says resolution agreements he’s seen with other school districts on the issue are similar in scope to what happened in Virginia Beach. He says the OCR seems to be at least partially relying on the U.S. Department of Justice’s guidance document on website accessibility.
According to Andriana, “OCR enforces, among other things, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the ADA. Section 504 and the ADA generally require that school districts provide qualified individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services, or activities, unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of the program. OCR takes the position that this equal access requirement extends t o school districts’ websites.”