In addressing issues related to digital accessibility, educational institutions need to consider the current state of the law and rulemaking status of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA covers all educational institutions, with Title II covering public schools and Title III covering private schools. Remember, there are no specific published technical requirements that define how the ADA is applied to the internet. Although the Department of Justice (DOJ) was working on formal rules about website accessibility, it abandoned them in December 2017 and is unlikely to take the matter up again in the near future. In the absence of clear regulations, courts have taken on a more prominent role in determining what the ADA requires of websites and mobile apps.
In addition, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects students with disabilities from discrimination in education. As opposed to the ADA, Section 504 only applies to programs and activities that receive Federal aid. The other primary difference between the ADA and Section 504 is that the ADA is administered by the Department of Justice (DOJ) while Section 504 is overseen by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Education (DOE).
Recently, court cases have focused on the question of whether websites themselves qualify as places of public accommodation that must comply with Title III of the ADA. This question is far more complicated, with federal courts and the DOJ having reached inconsistent positions. Some courts have held that a website is covered under the ADA only to the extent that it has a nexus with a physical location. Other courts have held that no such nexus is required.
Last year, in the first website accessibility case to go to trial, a federal judge in Miami ruled that grocery chain Winn-Dixie’s website was covered under the ADA, because it served as a nexus to the chain’s physical stores. The court then ordered Winn-Dixie to bring its website into compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0)—the first court to do so—but did not distinguish between Level A or AA success criteria. The case is currently under appeal to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Aside from the Winn-Dixie case, however, courts have not addressed the question of whether WCAG 2.0 AA is the appropriate standard for accessibility, leaving the state of digital accessibility law very much in doubt.
Want to Learn More?
For more information on about how you can best serve your students with disabilities, join us on Tuesday, May 22nd at 2pm ET/11am PT for a free webinar, Making Education Websites Accessible to People with Disabilities. Register now and receive our bonus companion whitepaper!
This blog post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.