Virtual Learning in Schools Requires Web Accessibility

As schools and universities across the U.S. reopened in the fall of 2021, teachers and students were excited to return to the classroom. Despite the back-to-school safety measures that schools have put in place, many may have been a little too excited. 

Just a few weeks into the 2021 school year, schools in Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee were among those forced to quarantine classes, grade levels, and districts due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

In hopes to continue to offer in-person classes, universities such as City University of New York (CUNY) and the University of California require students, faculty, and staff to provide proof of the COVID-19 vaccine before they will be allowed on campus. Additionally, many universities are requiring anyone visiting the campus to wear a mask.

Whether it’s due to having a compromised immune system, school closure, refusal to vaccinate or wear a mask, or personal preference, students will continue to require options for virtual learning in schools. The increase of the need to provide more information online means that educational institutions have more work to do when it comes to ensuring website accessibility.

How does a school make their website accessible?

The first thing to know about website accessibility is that contrary to what accessibility overlay widget salesmen tell you, website accessibility is not and can not be automatic. (You can read more about that in the Overlay Fact Sheet signed by accessibility experts, developers, and lawyers.)

Similar to how enrolling in a class will not automatically ensure course credit, there is no one-step solution to making a website accessible. Too often, we see schools and other website owners who are looking for a quick fix and buy into the accessibility overlay scam only to result in a legal complaint. 

Achieving full website accessibility requires a conscious effort from decision makers, designers, developers, and content creators. For schools, to achieve accessibility in online learning teachers and staff need to regularly update information.

The steps below provide a basic workflow for achieving school website accessibility.

Five steps to achieve website accessibility.

  1. Create a website accessibility policy and implementation plan.
  2. Provide web accessibility training for designers, developers, and content creators.
  3. Assess the website’s accessibility needs with a web accessibility audit.
  4. Remove all website accessibility barriers identified in the audit.
  5. Remediate documents including PDFs, MS Office, and other formats.

Although schools are anxious to jump right in and repair accessibility as fast as they can, the first step—creating a policy and implementation plan—is vital. This step allows you to set standards and delegate tasks so that no one is individually overwhelmed. Additionally, having a clearly defined plan will ensure that you are able to keep your website accessible with future updates.

If you are working with a strict deadline (possibly due to a complaint letter that your school received from the Office of Civil Rights) you can complete some steps simultaneously. For example, begin web accessibility training while your website’s accessibility testing is underway. Likewise, since website remediation and document remediation typically involve separate teams, your staff can work on these steps concurrently.

We’ve posted free resources to help you learn and apply web accessibility into your workflow.

Access to free resources

How web accessibility benefits business owners

If you are a business owner, you may be familiar with the term bounce rate. The bounce rate of a website is the rate of how long users stay on a website. Unlike conversion rates that we want to be high, our goal is to have a lower bounce rate. The lower the bounce rate, the longer people are staying on the website. 

On the contrary, a higher bounce rate indicates a poorly constructed site. A website that lacks accessibility would be considered a poorly constructed site. A poorly constructed website includes things like non-responsive design, lack of color contrast, and missing form labels.

Our goal is to keep people on our website longer so that they discover more reasons why they should choose us over our competitors. A study found that 71% of disabled web users will leave a website when it is not accessible. This is a large enough percentage to have a significant impact against the overall bounce rate. Business owners must prioritize web accessibility to avoid potential loss of customers.

How web accessibility benefits developers and Google

If your web developer argues that web accessibility does not benefit them, then it may be time to find a new developer as it is just undeniable how vital web accessibility for developers is, especially nowadays. Developers aim to create high quality websites and know that the cleaner the code is, the faster their websites will run. If a website’s load time is slow or a website fails to rank high in search results, the development team is responsible. Cleaner code means faster, high quality code. Semantically correct code is cleaner code. Accessible code is semantically correct. This means that code is written according to specifications. HTML elements (code) have semantic meaning. Developers optimize a website’s accessibility and performance by using code as it is intended. 

Aside from having fewer bugs and making a website load faster, semantic code also helps search engines such as Google and Bing to index the content and achieve higher search rankings. For example, let’s say that a web page is about comparing web development platforms such as WordPress and Shopify. The page visually uses headings to organize its content. The code of the page uses paragraph tags with classes (used for targeting styles) to create the visual appearance of headings like this:  

Why do PDF documents require accessibility repairs?

Simply put, PDF documents require repairs in order to be accessible. We mentioned previously that accessibility does not happen automatically. This also applies to document accessibility. 

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires public facing electronic content to be accessible as well as electronic content that is not public facing when the content constitutes official business such as: 

  1. An emergency notification;
  2. An initial or final decision adjudicating an administrative claim or proceeding;
  3. An internal or external program or policy announcement;
  4. A notice of benefits, program eligibility, employment opportunity, or personnel action;
  5. A formal acknowledgement of receipt;
  6. A survey questionnaire;
  7. A template or form;
  8. Educational or training materials; or
  9. Intranet content designed as a Web page.

When linking to documents for things such as student handbooks, course outlines, and financial budgets, the majority of schools and universities prefer PDFs. We agree since this format not only maintains the desired visual appearance, but also provides great accessibility options.

When accessibility is not applied in the native document, accessibility is not achieved in the final PDF resulting in the need for PDF remediation. A PDF requires a tagging structure that allows assistive technology such as screen readers and other voice recognition software to interact with the content of the document.

Similar to how we use HTML headings (h1, h2, h3, etc.) to structure a web page, a PDF document uses heading tags to structure the document. A person using a screen reader can navigate a PDF page by headings just as they would a web page. Other techniques included in making a PDF document accessible include

  1. Providing sufficient color contrast
  2. Including alternative descriptions for images
  3. Including document title and language declarations
  4. Providing descriptive link text
  5. Associated table data cells with their respective header cells

Using these techniques and others when creating PDF documents will ensure that your content is presented to the broadest range of people.

Litigation and threatened litigation for website accessibility under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) continues to be a driving force for ensuring website accessibility. In July 2021, New York’s Syracuse University joined the growing list of universities to receive a complaint alleging that their website was not fully accessible. 

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights receives web accessibility complaints for a variety of accessibility barriers that affect many different types of disabilities. The most common disabilities that we see mentioned in web accessibility lawsuits include impairments related to hearing and vision.

However, web accessibility affects a broad range of individuals and extends past just those with hearing or visual impairments. For example, individuals with cognitive impairments such as ADHD and temporary disabilities such as a broken hand or arm also suffer when a website is not designed in an accessible way.

The best thing that schools can do to avoid losing potential students and ensure current students receive equal educational experiences is to reevaluate the importance of accessibility in online learning and start removing accessibility barriers from their websites. This will ensure educational institutions meet the requirements to provide accessible online learning to everyone, regardless of the presence of disabilities . Following the steps outlined above will help your school’s website provide an accessible experience for everyone.

Avatar for David Gevorkian

By David Gevorkian

David Gevorkian started Be Accessible because of his passion for delivering exceptional customer service. Prior to Be Accessible, he spent much of his early career working for financial institutions in sales, treasury, and product management. David earned his Master’s in Business Administration from Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. He discovered a common need for web and mobile accessibility during his previous roles, and as a result, he created Be Accessible to make accessibility in reach for any type of business. David is a strong advocate for creating aesthetic and accessible products usable by all people across the world.

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