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Q&A: Web Accessibility in Higher Education with OCR & Compliance

If you’re in Higher Education you’re likely becoming increasingly aware of the pressures for websites to be accessible, and really, it’s no wonder. Hundreds of Accessibility Lawsuits, Complaints, and Settlements have been filed against schools for having non-compliant websites and materials. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this big, scary monster waiting to get you. There are ways to help avoid complaints all together, and if you get one, there is a process to go through on your way to 508 compliance. 

So, with that, let’s break this all down a bit!

  1. Pressure is mounding to be ADA 508 compliant and now the 508 refresh aligns those guidelines with the internationally recognized WCAG 2.0 AA criteria 
  2. Accessibility is not as cloaked in mystery as many may believe. There are steps you can take to help you navigate these waters
  3. In the end you have the opportunity to come out of this exercise with a stronger web presence that has significant potential to increase the ROI for your website 

Three things, not so scary right? Let’s continue this conversation and, hopefully, take away some of the stress associated with this. 

How is accessibility enforced?

If you’re reading this you may already be aware of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) but just in case, let’s start there. The OCR is responsible for enforcing many of the Acts that are there to protect the rights of U.S. citizens. From the Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, to the American Disabilities Act, to the Age Discrimination Act, and so on; this group’s responsibilities are to ensure the greater needs are being addressed. If it is suggested that your organization is non-compliant, the OCR is a group that is likely going to be looking into it. 

What do we do about complaints?

Prevention is the Second-Best Policy

Before we dive into what happens if you already have a complaint from the OCR filed against you, let’s touch on how to avoid it and why. Even if your site is not fully compliant yet, you can take measures that can both safe-guard your site while also setting your team up for compliance success; Create an Accessibility Policy and Statement. Though I’ll dive into the details of this later, be aware that having a plan that acknowledges areas for improvement and ensures that there is a process for complaints to be addressed in a reasonable way can only help you if a case were to be filed later. 

If you don’t have a complaint filed against you, an Accessibility Statement may help ward off the bad press, paperwork and stress of that added pressure. 

What happens if you have an OCR complaint filed against you?

According to Ed.gov, the OCR’s role is to act as a “neutral fact-finder” throughout the investigative process. This means that once a complaint is filed against you, they first determine if it is even worth further processing. If it is determined that the complaint is to move to the next step, that next step is a letter informing both the complainant and the recipient that the matter will be investigated. This does not mean that any decision has been made - this is only opening the investigation. 

“If OCR determines that a recipient failed to comply with one of the civil rights laws that OCR enforces, OCR will contact the recipient and will attempt to secure the recipient’s willingness to negotiate a voluntary resolution agreement.” 

It’s important to step back and look at that quote a moment. Accessibility enforcement is not the fear-based, gut reaction many people are concerned it is. This is a process. Your legal team can walk you through next steps but at a high level, this is a process in which you are able to take part and influence its outcome. Work with your legal team to put in a plan to address the issues. You can learn more about the process reading the OCR’s Case Processing Manual. 

How do we become compliant?

Accessibility audit 

A good first step is to understand all the ways your site may not be compliant. This discovery enables you to start rebuilding trust with your users through accurate and transparent communication. It will also allow your team to create a roadmap that addresses all of the issues, not only those filed in the current complaint. 

An audit should be conducted by trained staff who knows what to look for. A combination of both automated and manual testing should be conducted against the WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines. The result of this audit should present you both with details about the issues found, and approaches to correct those issues, giving your development teams a head start correcting them. This audit may be presented to you in two ways: more technical terms to aid your development team, and in business terms so that you are able to inform your non-technical stakeholders of what was found and why it is important to fix it. 

Accessibility statement

As much as your team may want to jump directly from the audit into action, take the time to create an Accessibility Statement if you don’t already have one. An Accessibility Statement is a declaration on a website that defines the level of web accessibility the website aims to achieve. According to W3C, these statements should include:

  • Reference standards (A, AA)
  • Referencing Approaches
  • Define conformance levels
  • Define scope of policy
  • Set conformance milestones
  • Consider third-party content
  • Define monitoring and review process

This sounds complicated but it’s no more than a short information page that should be made available from every page on the site.

How does it help?

An accessibility statement serves three purposes.

  1. It states clearly what level of accessibility the website is targeting and acknowledges areas that still need improvement with a plan to achieve those goals. These goals must be genuine and not include any false claims or they could damage the reputation of the site.
  2. “Accessibility Statement. One way to curtail lawsuits is to prominently include an accessibility statement on the website expressing that the entity creates and maintains a website which is accessible to people with disabilities, and provides contact information for any user with a concern or complaint regarding the website's accessibility. “  - AmericanBar.org
  3. It is a powerful public statement of commitment showing that your organization recognizes the importance of a more inclusive approach.

A timely plan

Updating your site takes time but your audit should set you up for success. With the audit in hand, work with your team to identify quicker wins and issues that will require a bigger lift. Your roadmap to compliance will be unique to your site, but taking it in steps will allow you to complete the changes in the timeframes set forth in your accessibility statement. 

Once the issues have been addressed, update your accessibility statement to say you’ve made every attempt to be compliant but welcome feedback on how to improve the users experience. 

What are our next steps?

Even when you’ve made your site compliant things can deteriorate over time, this is not a one-and-done scenario. A poorly uploaded image or written text can bring a page’s compliance into question. Additionally, technologies change and there may be better ways to address the issues of today, tomorrow. 

Future proofing your site just makes sense and here are a few easy ways how:

Training your editors

Your content authors and editors have more power than they may realize when it comes to accessibility. Everyday they make choices that could create barriers they may not realize are even there. Train your team to set your entire organization up for success. Download our updated Accessibility Best Practices for Content Editors guide to maximize your content. 

Periodic Health Checks

Websites evolve, technologies advance, etc. This is why we recommend periodic health checks. Whether it be our team or a trained member of your own, take the time to have someone go through your site on a regular basis. This does not have to be a full audit but more of a higher level check to look for red flags. If problems exist it may be recommended that you take a deeper dive and re-audit your site. But if not, you’ll be able to get a sense of what needs to be addressed and what members of your team may need additional training to keep up with the changes and ensure that your site stays compliant. 

Partnering for Success

Even if you have one dedicated person responsible for testing your site’s level of compliance, no one person can make your site accessible alone. Your team needs support from stakeholders, designers, developers and content editors. Each person who has the ability to influence your website has a role to play to help make it an inclusive experience to your site’s visitors. 

Accessibility is NOT the Boogeyman

Think about it, an accessible website has been known to:

  • Deter OCR complaints and other legal action
  • Grant you a greater ROI on your site with SEO optimization built in
  • Reach a larger audience through that SEO
  • Help to counter bad user experiences

and it is more friendly to emerging technologies,...all while being the right thing to do to be inclusive to those with different abilities. 

Accessibility should be seen as the positive experience it can be. If that’s not how it’s feeling from your point of view, reach out to us. We have a team of more than 30 professionals who are focused on accessibility, as well as your success. We’ve seen these challenges before and can help your team make accessibility “Just what we do.”

Additional Resources
Web Accessibility Guide for Businesses | Blog
5 Things You Can Do To Make Your Site More Accessible | Blog
Digital Strategy Can Help to Make Accessibility ‘Just What We Do’ | Blog

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