K-12 Schools and accessibility-related issues: A detailed study

Students look at a laptop over their teacher's shoulder.

Introduction

Every student has an equal right to education, including students with disabilities. It’s a myth that students with disabilities are not as capable as their non – disabled peers. On the contrary, an accessible educational environment ensures an inclusive and better learning experience for everyone, including students with disabilities.

The most important step schools can take towards inclusive education is ensuring that educational learning materials (such as printed and electronic text books, worksheets, course modules, curriculum materials etc., in print, audio, video, digital or graphic format) are accessible to students with disabilities.

In recent years there has been a shift from print-based learning to digital content. This transition has been accelerated by the pandemic which has necessitated the creation of accessible learning materials for students with disabilities in mainstream education.

Delivering quality instruction is clearly a challenge for most schools and school districts in the current circumstances. The magnitude of the challenge varies from well-funded schools with the technology capability, who are able to make the transition to digital much more easily than those which do not have the resources to do so.

What is accessibility?

Accessibility is the process of making digital products (websites, apps, digital documents) accessible to all. It means all users have the same access to information, regardless of their impairments.

According to W3C (the organization who manages web standards), their goal for web accessibility is:

… to lead the Web to its full potential to be accessible, enabling people with disabilities to participate equally on the Web. The Web must be accessible to provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with diverse abilities. Indeed, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes access to information and communications technologies, including the Web, as a basic human right.

Why is digital accessibility important in K-12 schools?

Schools and school districts are increasingly contending with the pressing task of creating accessible learning content. The use of presentations, course content, supplemental materials, OERs, instructional materials, etc., in the K-12 education system has soared during the pandemic.

The shift to digital work has allowed teachers who instruct kindergarten to the twelfth grade to continue with classroom interaction. But it has also meant that teachers have to contend with the volume of content that has to be made accessible and maintain the quality to disseminate to students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers. For students and teachers with disabilities the importance of accessible learning content has become more crucial than before. It would be useful to keep in mind some basic tips when creating accessible content for K-12 students.

Why accessible learning materials?

K-12 schools have an obligation to not only provide accessible learning materials as a matter of good policy but also to stand on the right side of law.

The Disability Standards for Education

The Disability Standards for Education 2005 (The Standards) were developed under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, and came into effect in August 2005. It requires that people with disabilities are provided with equal access to learning experiences. It states: “the curriculum, teaching materials, and the assessment and certification requirements for the course or program are appropriate to the needs of the student and accessible to him or her” and “the course or program study materials are made available in a format that is appropriate for the student and, where conversion of materials into alternative accessible formats is required, the student is not disadvantaged by the time taken for conversion”.

Americans with Disabilities Act:

In June 2010, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice jointly published a “Dear Colleague” letter to postsecondary, secondary and elementary schools. The letter stated that if a particular mode of instruction is inaccessible to students with disabilities, it constituted a discrimination, prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):

In 1990, the United States Congress reauthorized EHA and changed the title to IDEA. Overall, the goal of IDEA is to provide children with disabilities the same opportunity for education as those students who do not have a disability. The IDEA Act requires educational institutions to ensure equal access to curriculum and learning materials are provided to students who are blind or with print disabilities in alternative accessible formats in a timely manner. It also stipulates teaching practices that will accommodate all learners.

The most common student disabilities are:

Vision icon.
1. Visual
Auditory icon.
2. Auditory
Wheelchair icon.
3. Physical
Cognitive icon.
4. Cognitive

The challenges faced by students with disabilities

  1. Visual: Students with disabilities face challenges perceiving visual content.
  2. Auditory: Students with hearing disabilities have challenges perceiving auditory content.
  3. Physical: Students with physical disabilities have challenges with muscle and motor control.
  4. Cognitive: Students with cognitive disabilities have neurological challenges processing information.

The Need:

Designing accessible content is imperative in K-12 education.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education, 11% of K-12 students aged 6-17 in the United States have some form of disability. Only 66% of these students graduate with a regular high school diploma and 18.5% of these students drop out before completing high school. Simply put, students with disabilities need and deserve accessible digital content.

The info graphic below highlights a few important statistics to keep in mind to drive home the need for accessible learning content:

  • 94.7% of K-12 students with disabilities are educated in regular classrooms for half a day. These students cannot consume regular classroom content the same way as the other students with disabilities.
  • 70% of teachers feel that there is a massive gap between the resources they need for instruction and what they have.
The percent of k-12 students aged 6 to 17 with some kind of disability living in the United States is 11 percent.
Why accessibility?

Students (under 18) enrolled in K-12 schools who have vision and cognitive difficulty in top three states:

The charts illustrate the percentage change in the number of students with vision and cognitive difficulty in California, New York, and Texas.

Chart 1: Students (under 18) with vision difficulty in top 15 counties in California

Top fifteen counties in California that have students under 18 with vision difficulties. Los Angeles reports the highest and Stanislau county the lowest.
Chart 1: Students (under 18) with vision difficulty in top 15 counties in California
Top fifteen counties in California that have students under 18 with cognitive difficulties. Los Angeles reports the highest and Stanislau county the lowest.
Chart 2: Students (under 18) with cognitive difficulty in top 15 counties in California
Top fifteen counties in New York that have students under 18 with vision difficulties. Bronx reports the highest and Rockland county the lowest.
Chart 3: Students (under 18) with vision difficulty in top 15 counties in New York
Top fifteen counties in New York that have students under 18 with cognitive difficulties. Bronx reports the highest and Oneida county the lowest.
Chart 4: Students (under 18) with cognitive difficulty in top 15 counties in New York
Top fifteen counties in Texas that have students under 18 with vision difficulties. Harris county reports the highest and Webb county the lowest.
Chart 5: Students (under 18) with vision difficulty in top 15 counties in Texas
Top fifteen counties in Texas that have students under 18 with cognitive difficulties. Harris county reports the highest and Lubbock county the lowest.
Chart 6: Students (under 18) with cognitive difficulty in top 15 counties in Texas

5 Reasons Accessibility is critical for K-12 Schools

Schools and school districts utilize their websites to provide related resources and information to students, parents, and the wider community. Unfortunately, most of these websites are inaccessible to people with disabilities. Over the last several years, disability rights advocates and the U.S. Department of Education have raised expectations that all digital content on school websites must be accessible to people with disabilities.

Here are five critical reasons why schools and school districts must make their websites accessible

It Is Ethically & Morally Right to Make Websites Inclusive

Schools have an ethical and moral obligation to make their websites accessible and inclusive. When visitors with disabilities visit the website to look for information, being inaccessible can deny them the right to equal access to information.

People With Disabilities Have a Voice and Are Not a Silent Minority

Schools and school districts must acknowledge the voices of their disabled student and teacher community or risk perpetrating the detrimental notion that they do not support individuals with disabilities.

Web Accessibility Will Increase Your Reach in Your Community

According to the CDC, 22 percent of adults in the United States have some type of disability. Schools could be missing one-fifth of their target audience if they do not optimize their site for accessibility.

Build Loyalty & Trust

Schools that follow-through on their commitment to build integrate accessibility into their websites gain an edge over their competition. Schools with accessibility as their core commitment gain more loyal visitors and repeat traffic and build brand trust. Those schools that are speaking to the 22 percent of the population who have a disability have accessible community engagement.

The Office of Civil Rights Set Regulations for Schools to Follow

Being accessible is not only the right thing to do, it is also required by law. The Office of Civil Rights is tasked with making education accessible for all students and school communities. It is imperative that schools and districts stay up-to-date on these laws and their regulations and meet the new compliance deadlines when these laws are updated. These rules and regulations are critical and must be taken seriously to prevent the school administration from receiving a formal complaint.

Here a few ways to make online learning accessible to all students

Multiple means of representation

Teachers can give students the option of reading text, watching videos, listening to audio, or examining images by using the latest advanced AI-based tools such as virtual tours, augmented reality or digital 3D.

Multiple means of engagement

Teachers can guide students to explore multiple resources on their own time and engage with a rich digital experience such as a Google Doc with links to all the available online resources.

Multiple means of action and expression

Teachers can design open-ended activities where the students can choose how to demonstrate their knowledge. Students can write descriptions, create a podcast, or video, or even build 3D models.

Open Educational Resource (OER)

Teachers can make use of accessible Open Educational Resources available freely in public domains.

Design for accessibility

Teachers can follow a few ways to make content accessible by making images, multimedia content, links, buttons, and forms accessible.

Advantages of ensuring accessible learning materials

  • Makes teaching as well as learning a better enriching and engaging experience.
  • Improves student engagement and course evaluations.
  • Students spend focus more on the course content.
  • Increases student retention.
  • Helps schools meet compliance as per IDEA, AODA, WCAG, Section 508, EN 301 549, Section 504.
  • Students with disabilities get access to STEM subjects which otherwise would be difficult.

Disadvantages of inaccessible learning content

The rising tide of accessibility related lawsuits against schools:

There has been a steady rise in complaints of discrimination against students with disabilities in K-12 schools under Title II and Title III of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Additionally, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires equal access to curriculum for all students, as well as teaching practices which will accommodate all learners.

Schools have to deal with the complaints being filed with the Federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The litigation is time-consuming, inflict irreparable harm on the institution’s brand, and incur substantial legal costs. 

The Office for Civil Rights resolved 493 accessibility related cases against elementary and secondary schools in California, 153 in New York, and 425 cases in Texas.

Powhatan County Public Schools

Just recently, an out-of-state complaint was filed against various websites run by Powhatan County Public Schools saying the sites were not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. This complaint, rather than coming from someone in Powhatan, came from someone in Michigan who is filing similar complaints across the nation.

Limited school district resources mean that rather than making content accessible, they will have to remove non-conforming content from their websites. This includes videos that are not closed captioned, photos that don’t have captions that can be read by specific kinds of electronic readers, live links, and PDF documents that can’t be read by e-readers.

The school district is in talks with the Office of Civil rights to resolve this issue, and are looking into hiring a vendor to design ADA compliant websites to replace the inaccessible websites created by the school district staff.

Granite School District

The OCR received a complaint against the Granite School District’s website because it was only accessible using a computer mouse, did not have alternative text descriptions, and did not have closed captions on videos. These are all key aspects that make a site either accessible or inaccessible to people with disabilities.

In this K-12 web accessibility resolution agreement, the Granite School District agreed to provide accessibility training to employees and identify and fix accessibility flaws to be compliant with Federal standards. The accessibility of Granite School District’s online content and functionality will be measured using WCAG 2.0 Level AA and the Web Accessibility Initiative Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite (WAI-ARIA).

Montana School District for the Deaf and Blind

After receiving a complaint, the OCR investigated the accessibility the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind website. In their agreement, the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind agreed to adhere to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To achieve this, they will remove accessibility flaws to meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards, create a request page so that people with disabilities can request content that is still inaccessible, and provide accessibility training to employees.

Oregon Department of Education

The OCR investigated a complaint against the Oregon Department of Education website that stated it was inaccessible to people with disabilities by not following the standards set forth in Section 504 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The OCR determined that the Oregon Department of Education’s website was inaccessible and did not meet WCAG 2.0 conformance. According to the settlement, Oregon Department of Education will remove barriers on their website that make it inaccessible, create a request page so that people with disabilities can request content that is still inaccessible, and provide accessibility training to employees

Chandler Unified School District

A complaint was filed with the OCR alleging that people with disabilities were unable to have an equal opportunity because they were unable to access Chandler Unified School District’s website. The OCR found that many of the images did not have alt-tags, screen readers were unable to fully read and access tables, large blocks of text, and online forms, and video captions did not accurately display what was being said.

Seattle School District

Seattle will take several steps to make the ed-tech used in its schools accessible to blind students, faculty, and parents, in the settlement of a lawsuit brought against the district by Noel Nightingale and her co-plaintiff, the National Federation of the Blind.

The potentially landmark agreement, which was signed on Sept. 25, comes after Nightingale, a blind mother of three Seattle students, filed a lawsuit in 2014 because she did not have equal access to information on the district’s websites and a math program. The National Federation of the Blind is a co-plaintiff in the case.

Nightingale originally brought the issue to the attention of Seattle schools in 2012, according to a briefing for the school board on the issue. The district’s website provider indicated that it could not fully resolve the issues.

The consent decree resolves the matter between the district and the plaintiffs. In the decree, the district agrees to: 

  • Make its websites accessible to blind people through existing technology;
  • Hire or appoint an accessibility coordinator;
  • Conduct an accessibility audit of the district’s technology, programs, services, and activities, and develop a remediation plan for any issues uncovered in the audit;
  • Create and maintain an “accessible education resources” portal to help faculty and staff communicate effectively with people with disabilities and ensure accessibility of educational content, and to provide information about disability policies and services to students, faculty, and parents with disabilities;
  • 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 Americans With Disabilities Act) 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.

According to the board’s briefing on the issue, the cost to implement the decree is estimated to be between $665,400 and $815,400 over its three-and-a-half year term, including $385,000 to hire an accessibility coordinator, and $150,000 for an audit and corrective action plan. Web accessibility testing has been budgeted at $90,000, and another $105,000 will be needed to train the staff designated in the agreement.

The anticipated costs also include one-time reimbursement of attorney’s fees of $80,412, and paying $5,000 in damages to Nightingale.

The National Federation of the Blind, which has in the past lodged lawsuits against higher education on similar issues, applauded the decision by Seattle schools in what it called “a landmark agreement” at the K-12 level.

In a nationwide study of K-12 websites in the United States it was found that:

  1. School Web sites generally struggled with accessibility
  2. Though some common school demographic factors exacerbated these issues (e.g., charter status, governing state, urbanity), most variance was based upon individual school circumstances
  3. There are some clear areas where policy-makers and leaders can focus their attentions to help improve school Web site accessibility for all.

First, the results of this study should clearly prove that K–12 Web site accessibility is a nationwide problem that requires attention. Nearly two-thirds of schools failed at least one of the measurable WCAG guidelines. 89.3 percent of schools had contrast issues, which typically represent a WCAG failure. 95.5 percent of school home pages had a detectable error of some kind, with the average site having over 24 errors. The WAVE-identifiable errors that were most prevalent — poor contrast, images missing alternative text, unlabeled form controls — also have high levels of impact for users with disabilities trying to consume Web site content. Though error density rates seemed promising in some regards (M = 3.7 percent), our optimism should be curbed by the simple fact that a single, severe accessibility error can make a Web page wholly or partially inaccessible to entire groups of people. Thus, it seems that the only acceptable error density goal should be zero and that any WCAG guideline failure or detectable error might constitute a possibly serious accessibility concern for students, parents, and community members.

The frequency of WCAG 2.0 failures in a nationwide study shows the highest failure rate for non-text content - 63.6% and lowest for page titles - 1.3%. The pass frequency is highest for language of page at 95.6% and lowest for non-text content at 36.4%.
Table 1: Frequency of WCAG 2.0 failures
Most common errors in homepages of K-12 schools is highest for very low contrast at 89.3% and lowest for empty links at 12.3%.
Table 2: Most common errors in K-12 schools homepages

Second, though these problems were at least somewhat mediated by school- and state-level factors, it seems that the primary determinant of Web site accessibility is the individual school itself. Thus, this is not so much an issue of poor vs. rich or small vs. large schools as it is a problem that each individual school must account for on its own through awareness and remedy. In other words, inaccessibility is both rampant and universal, and though some states might fare better than others in head-to-head comparisons, every state has room for improvement and so does almost every school.

And third, there are clear areas that can be addressed at the content management system (CMS) or page template level and constitute minor code changes that would alleviate numerous accessibility errors. Site-wide changes in colors, for example, might only require changing one line of CSS code but might address contrast issues across hundreds of pages on a site. Similarly, implementation of standards-compliant form templates would allow highly accessible forms in all instances. Many K–12 CMS providers have made recent efforts to provide more accessible template and content management options, though K–12 schools often are not yet up-to-date with these accessible options or may be using an older CMS. While many critical issues can be addressed at the template level, content authors must also be informed of basic accessibility techniques (e.g., providing alternative text on images) in order to ensure accessibility of the content they provide.

To best support Web accessibility, districts and schools should consider policies and implementation plans that consider accessibility in procurement (particularly of electronic systems), content and document authoring, and training of personnel, and ongoing testing of Web content by each school is necessary to ensure highly accessible Web content. Furthermore, while automated testing can be informative, manual testing is also necessary to ensure an optimally accessible end user experience on factors that may be difficult for an automated system to detect.

This study has provided the first large-scale, landscape view of K–12 Web site accessibility in the U.S. Overall, we found that school Web site homepages struggled with various accessibility considerations, and we highlighted a number of areas of emphasis that should guide school administrators and policy makers in improvement. Some key areas of improvement that most schools should address include improving poor contrast between text and backgrounds, providing alternative text to images and other visual elements, and labelling form controls.

The humungous cost of making school websites accessible

Even for those that abbreviate the process by entering into voluntary agreements, the cost of remediating school and district websites presents a heavy financial, time, and personnel investment, particularly within a sector often struggling to use limited resources. Depending on the size of the website, the methods and the number of people involved in updating the digital assets, the accessibility of the technologies used, and other factors, bringing a site into compliance can easily run into the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars.

Spokane Public Schools made a commitment to improve accessibility in response to an OCR complaint. Kevin Morrison, a spokesman for Spokane, talked with The Spokesman-Review about initial costs of that commitment. With a website of over 13,000 pages, making the site accessible required redesigning the site, developing a unified set of standards, and retraining staff. Morrison estimated that just developing a plan to become ADA compatible would cost the district $25,000.

Some of the key elements that keep a school’s website from being fully accessible are:

  • Images not having “alt text,” or alternative text, that describes salient points when the image cannot be perceived visually.
  • Audio and visual media not having alternate ways of accessing the given content using a different sense. For audio files, this may mean providing a transcript that can be read instead of heard. For video files, this usually means providing closed captioning and audio descriptions that can be read aloud by a screen reader.
  • Lack of accurate closed captioning for videos. While automated closed captioning is one option, it does not always convey information well.
  • Lack of keyboard-only navigation. Many people with disabilities may not use a mouse, so proper navigation structure and labeling is critical to ensuring a user can navigate the website logically and without undue clutter by using the tab key, keyboard shortcuts, and other keyboard facilitated actions.
  • Designs with lack of contrast between critical information and its background. For users who have low-vision or color blindness, poor color combinations can make text and images difficult to perceive.
  • Lack of compatibility with screen reading software and assistive devices. Digital content must be compatible with the assistive technologies, including screen readers, magnifiers, sip and puff systems, special keyboards, voice recognition software and other applications or devices that many people with disabilities use.
  • Flashing or moving elements that can affect someone prone to seizures or distractibility.

Seven Recommendations for schools to minimize the chances of getting an OCR complaint

  • Create a policy for electronic and information technology accessibility
  • Appoint an accessibility coordinator
  • Include accessibility criteria in technology purchases
  • Include a link to an accessibility statement and resources and provide a feedback mechanism
  • Complete a prioritized audit of electronic and information technology
  • Remediate inaccessible electronic and information technology
  • Provide role-based training for faculty, staff, and administrators

Conclusion

OCR complaints and litigation against schools show no signs of slowing down. A proactive approach to evaluating and maintaining organizational websites reduces the risk of being caught up in that wave; allows organizations to plan for changes; makes content more available and accessible to all students, alumni, parents, and the general public; and puts schools in a better position should a complaint be filed.

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