New York State School Boards Association

Is your website accessible to the disabled? Federal law now requires it

by Barbara Bradley

On Board Online • November 7, 2016

By Barbara Bradley
Deputy Director of Online Communications and Project Planning

When the Warwick Valley school district was hit with a federal complaint for failure to maintain a website that was accessible to individuals with disabilities, it turned to the Capital Region BOCES for help.

Turns out that public school districts are required by federal law to ensure their websites are accessible to people with disabilities.

"This is one of the best kept secrets in legal history," Jessica Scheckton, the BOCES' assistant director of communications and public relations, said at a session at NYSSBA's 97th Annual Convention & Education Expo in Buffalo.

In a session called "Access for All - Practical Steps Toward Website Accessibility," Scheckton and Communications Program Manager Steve King used Warwick Valley to illustrate what effect federal law has had on the evolution of school district websites in the last 10 years.

For a website to be accessible for users it must be perceivable, operable in terms of interface and navigation, and understandable. Website accessibility includes software such as online lunch payment portals, which is what caused the Warwick Valley complaint, and paperless board meetings, Scheckton explained.

In reworking Warwick Valley's website, Scheckton noted the real strategy was to "clean out that messy closet and get rid of content" and recalibrate staff expectations. For example, think of how a blind person would approach your website and ask whether you are providing an alternative means of access.

Scheckton offered these tips for website content authors:

  • Add alternative text equivalents to non-text elements such as images and graphics.
  • Don't use color to convey meaning ("Items marked in red are required.")
  • Add closed captions to videos and provide text transcripts of audio recordings. YouTube generates auto captions and saves time, but balks at long videos.

She added that designing for website accessibility means "moving away from pretty to functional. The 'pretty' will follow."

Scheckton advised that districts should remove as many PDFs as possible, such as student handbooks. You may already have that information in another form on your website, she said.

And PDFs often are not accessible to blind people who use screen readers and people with low vision who use text enlargement programs; HTML or text-based formats are better for such users. Websites should be designed to enable users to manipulate color and font settings in their web browsers to make pages readable, and web designers should avoid blinking and flashing elements.

Steve King agreed. "Our goal should be to scrub our websites, to curate content rather than make them PDF graveyards," he said.

For more information, see www.ada.gov/pcatoolkit/chap5toolkit.htm .


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