ADA Compliance and Education Websites

Common Issues and How to Avoid Them

There has been a lot in the news lately about educational institutions getting into legal trouble due to their web properties not being in compliance with ADA guidelines. Because of this many organizations are looking for more information regarding what the guidelines say, what some of the more common issues are and how to help ensure you stay in compliance and avoid any legal issues.


ADA Compliance Guidelines for Education


Starting around 2010, the US Department of Education began more deeply monitoring the accessibility for any education websites. This wasn’t limited to just state institutions but includes all educational institutions that receive federal funding which could include FAFSA and government grants. Over the past several years there have been more than 250 investigations by the Office for Civil Rights through powers granted from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 into different colleges and universities for failing to meet the standards. This means that all educational institutions that receive any kind of federal funds need to be aware of the guidelines and work to ensure their sites and other properties meet the guidelines.


The expectations as set out for educational institutions are that they will meet or exceed AA requirements as set out by W3C web content accessibility guidelines. This is commonly referred to as WCAG 2.0 and applied to all multimedia, dynamic content, mobile usage, etc. For context, W3C is The World Wide Web Consortium which is an international group with a variety of member organizations that work together to set web development standards. The organization began in the United States and the US has been participating with them pretty much since the inception.


The WCAG 2.0 standards were published in 2008 and were adopted as ISO standards in 2012 with the US Access Board approving a final rule to update the Rehabilitation act to include the new standards that were laid out in 2017. These standards are broken into 4 principles with guidelines under each that have to be met to show compliance. Those principles are:

  • Perceivable – Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive
    • This covers things like providing alternate text for non-text elements and having background and text colors that make it easy for users to see
  • Operable – User interface components and navigation must be operable
    • This covers things like making functionality available from a keyboard and providing users a way to navigate the site
  • Understandable – Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable
    • This covers things like making text readable and ensuring webpages operate in a predictable way
  • Robust – Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies
    • The main point behind this is that the site needs to be compatible with current and future user agents like screen readers


Most Common Compliance Violations


The full list of criteria that need to be met under each principle and guideline is fairly lengthy, so they won’t all be covered here but it is recommended that institutions make themselves familiar with the criteria. The full list with details about each can be found on the W3 website. It should be noted that there are three levels to the criteria, A, AA and AAA. Level A is the most basic and level AAA is the most stringent. As mentioned earlier, educational institutions are required to meet the middle level of AA. All of that aside, here are some of the most common violations that have been seen on websites:


  • Lack of alternate tags – These tags are bits of coding added to non-text elements on a site. The purpose of the tags is to give a description of what the element is. For example, the tag could be added to a picture on a page and would say something like “Undergraduate students studying together under a tree”. This text is what would be read to visitors who are using a screen reader.
  • Bad color combinations – All institutions have brand standards that include colors to be used on the site, generally related to the official school colors. Unfortunately, sometimes these combinations don’t work well together especially when used for background and text because the text becomes hard to read. Using the approved color palate is fine but text color and background color need to be used in a combination that does not hinder readability.
  • Videos missing captions – Any videos that are imbedded on a website should include captioning on them to allow for those who are hard of hearing to understand the video. These captions can be done in an open or closed method depending on how the video is used on the site.
  • Content only available by mouse – All content on a page needs to be accessible to visitors regardless of how they are interacting with a site. This issue often comes up when content is presented in a tabbed method, with certain content being displayed by clicking on tabs within the page. The visitor should be able to interact with these tabs by either mouse or keyboard.
  • Providing notice on how to report accessibility issues – If visitors to the site have issues interacting with it, a clear place for them to report these issues needs to be provided on every page of the site. Adding a link within the footer of the site is a simple way to address this.
  • Lack of compliance documentation – An institution should be able to provide visitors to the site with documentation of compliance with the WCAG 2.0 guidelines. The document should either be accessible from the website or a place should be provided where a visitor can request the documentation. The most common form of documentation is the VPAT 2.0. This document lists out all of the guidelines and can be filled out by the institution to demonstrate compliance.


How to Check That a Site is Compliant


There are several tools available to check a site for ADA compliance. The most common one is called WAVE which is put out by Web Accessibility in Mind or WebAIM, a non-profit organization. This tool is very effective to identify any compliance issues, but the downside is that it examines one page at a time on a site which can be very cumbersome for institutions with robust sites. For larger scale reviews a paid tool may be needed such as Dinolytics  or Level Access which can vary in price depending on the size of the site For a quick check or for smaller sites, the WAVE tool is a good option.


Thruline Marketing and ADA Compliance


Here at Thruline we do not complete full ADA compliance audits or bring websites into compliance. We do ensure that the sites we develop on behalf of our clients meet AA level standards, though. If a client has concerns that their website is not compliant, our inbound marketing team will run several checks on a site and recommend if a full audit by a third party is needed. As always, we suggest institutions consult with their legal counsel to determine what steps, if any, need to be taken.




Allen Harkleroad, Manager of Inbound Marketing