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Web Accessibility Lessons Learned from OCR

Ken Nakata, Director, Accessibility Consulting Practice at Cyxtera, discusses a recent presentation with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Recently I presented with my friend and former coworker Mary Lou Mobley from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Mary Lou and I have known each other for about 25 years since we started in the Department of Justice’s Disability Rights Section as young trial attorneys. We also worked together in helping developing web accessibility policy and Section 508 implementation for the Federal government.

We presented on what to expect in a Section 504 or Title II Technology Review. I talked about our work helping NASA conduct Section 504 compliance reviews of its grantees and Mary Lou discussed OCR’s complaint resolutions process. This is the third time we’ve presented this session and each time, it has been to a packed audience that asked a ton of questions.

I thought I would share some of the key ideas from our presentation as they reinforce many of the best practices that we have long preached. They also give insight on how to avoid as much pain as possible should you find yourself subject to a review—whether it’s by NASA, OCR or DRS.

  • Don’t Be Surprised If You Get a Complaint. We all know about the tidal wave of private lawsuits involving web accessibility, but there’s a similar surge in website accessibility complaints. In fact, there are over 1,700 web accessibility complaints currently being reviewed by OCR and this makes up over 10% of OCR’s caseload nationwide (note OCR handles far more than just disability related complaints—this includes sexual harassment and on-campus sexual assault and racial discrimination). There are two reasons for the burgeoning caseload involving websites. First, OCR is required to investigate all valid complaints. Second, those complaints don’t have to involve an injured party (for the legal geeks out there, an OCR complaint does not require “standing to sue”). And, just as private plaintiffs have filed web accessibility complaints after visiting a defendant’s website, just a handful of OCR complainants have filed the majority of the web accessibility complaints around the country.

  • Don’t Wait for OCR – Be Proactive and Cooperative. A lot of people think that they should either fight OCR or wait for them to complete their investigation before taking action on their websites. DO NOT DO THIS! Website accessibility is here to stay. At the same time, OCR is overwhelmed. The OCR Case Processing Manual allows respondents to proactively seek a “302 Resolution” (“302” refers to the section number in the OCR manual. If you come up with a solid plan and reach out to OCR after you’ve received a complaint, you’ll not only show your good faith, but you’ll also be helping an OCR investigator quickly cut down on one more web accessibility complaint.

  • How to Be Proactive—Why Do People Go to Your Website? Mary Lou mentioned that OCR doesn’t require perfect WCAG 2.0 AA compliance for every page in a university’s website. Instead, you’ll want to focus on the primary reasons people go to your site and make sure to thoroughly test them with quality manual testing. Hallelujah! This is exactly what we’ve been preaching for years! Let’s face it. Colleges and universities often have complex sites with hundreds of thousands of web pages—and it would bankrupt them to manually test every page. But if they focused on the core reasons why people go to their websites (e.g. applying to the university, registering for courses, accessing online courses, etc.), even the most complex college or university website can be reduced to a very finite set (e.g. less than 200) representative web pages. Identify these pages along with your template pages (particularly if you use a CMS system) and you’ll identify and eliminate a huge number of your website accessibility problems. We’ve been using this approach for years—and it is great to see that OCR has been looking at that as well. If you use this strategy and propose it to OCR (as part of a 302 resolution), you’ll be a hero to your OCR investigator and resolve your complaint much more quickly and painlessly.

  • Don’t Rely Only on Testers with Disabilities. Mary Lou mentioned that there are a lot of unqualified auditors for manual testing out there—and that colleges and universities should use common sense in choosing an auditor. She mentioned that some colleges and universities fall into the trap of choosing auditors just on the basis of their disabilities. For instance, some would tell her:

“we use deaf testers to evaluate if our captioning is sufficient” or “we use blind testers to evaluate the readability of our web pages.”

While we’ve always said that it’s great to use testers with disabilities to test the overall usability of web content, they shouldn’t be the only choice for testing accessibility compliance. They may unknowingly miss entire portions of the content. Mary Lou is great at simplifying messages and noted that relying only on testers with disabilities doesn’t work because “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

  • No Approved Auditor List and How to Choose an Auditor. We once had a prospective customer that didn’t want to work with us because we were not an “OCR Approved Auditor” (a claim made by some of our competitors). I thought that was odd because recommending a vendor would likely violate the agency ethics rules against “endorsements.” Mary Lou reinforced that idea—there is no “OCR Approved Vendor List.” I would go further and say that any organization that says they are an “OCR Approved Vendor” probably shouldn’t be trusted to evaluate your website. Instead, OCR evaluates prospective auditors on a case-by-case basis and looks critically at the auditor’s qualifications and experience in manual testing.

  • Automated Testing is no Panacea. Our customers are usually large enterprise customers that want to reduce risk across thousands of web pages. We’ve maintained that that is where automated testing works best, but that manual testing is absolutely essential for the core content and key use cases for a site. Mary Lou reinforces this concept. She says OCR will not accept automated testing ever as the only solution for a web accessibility program.

These key ideas can be helpful as you look to take control of your online accessibility. Get more information on enforcing accessibility regulations in a digital world by clicking here.