Over the past several years, thousands of complaints have been filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”), alleging that public school district websites are inaccessible to, and therefore discriminate against, people with disabilities. OCR is responsible for enforcing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, both of which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, including visual impairments.
A large percentage of the complaints have been filed by just a few “mass-filers,” resulting in a huge backlog of cases at OCR, many of which have been languishing for several years. To address this problem, in 2018, OCR revised its case-processing manual to permit dismissal of complaints that were a “continuation of a pattern of complaints previously filed with OCR by an individual or a group against multiple recipients, or a complaint is filed for the first time against multiple recipients that, viewed as a whole, places an unreasonable burden on OCR’s resources.” However, a lawsuit was filed against OCR by the mass-filers bringing these complaints, ultimately resulting in OCR’s decision to reverse its changes to its case-processing procedures, and to pledge to continue conducting investigations into complaints.
Consequently, school districts that received an OCR complaint within the past few years are beginning to receive correspondence from OCR about renewed monitoring of their compliance with the “Resolution Agreements” they entered into with OCR following the initial complaint and investigation. Additionally, it is possible that another wave of OCR complaints will be filed against school districts and other public entities by the mass-filers.
Federal law requires equal access to website information and resources. However, the law fails to specify what schools must do to ensure equal access to individuals with disabilities. In the absence of clear legal requirements, the “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0,” created by the World Wide Web Consortium, have become the accessibility standard that most public entities rely upon. Therefore, as a precautionary measure, school districts are encouraged to work with their technology personnel and website development/management companies to ensure that all features of the district’s website are WCAG compliant.
If your district receives an OCR complaint or needs assistance with navigating a Resolution Agreement previously entered into with OCR, do not hesitate to contact the attorneys at Pepple & Waggoner.