November 2017, Vol. 2

Accessibility and translation crucial to district-employee communication

by Zach DiSchiano
 
Consider all the different pieces of information, both physical and digital, districts make available to their employees.
 
There are pay stubs, compensation statements, FMLA forms, job applications, and many other items district staff members access routinely. That’s the key word—access, or accessibility. Can everyone, regardless of disabilities or language barriers, acquire the information they need? Or is the information districts disseminate only comprehensible to one segment of the workforce?

Why accessibility matters

It’s important for HR staff to ask questions internally about what their district is doing to accommodate employees. An increasing reliance on the internet as a primary source for employee communication has compelled districts to make their web content more accessible.
 
While the Department of Justice (DOJ) hasn’t made any official rules regarding website accessibility, there are still laws requiring districts to improve their online functionality.
 
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 require public entities to ensure equal access to all online programs, services, and activities for individuals with disabilities unless doing so would result in undue financial and administrative burden or fundamentally alter those programs, services, or activities.

Consequences

Districts that don’t accommodate individuals with disabilities or language barriers are vulnerable to formal complaints from employees, which could lead to an Office of Civil Rights (OCR) or DOJ investigation under ADA and Section 504. Subsequently, districts could face substantial settlement costs.
 
Two years ago, Seattle Public Schools settled a lawsuit estimated to cost the district between $665,440 and $815,400 to make its website more accessible, hire an accessibility coordinator, and properly train staff members. This is basically a worst-case scenario and a result of underestimating the importance of a user-friendly website.
 
The Seattle case shouldn’t cause districts to reverse course entirely, like the University of California at Berkeley did earlier this year. The university removed 20,000 videos from its website in response to the DOJ’s demand for closed captioning, which ultimately reduced accessibility for everyone—certainly not the intent of the government’s guidance.

Taking the first steps

Districts should try to simplify their web content and refrain from implementing too complex a design for aesthetic purposes. According to the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, digital content is considered accessible if it meets four criteria:
  1. Perceivable: Users can actually see/hear/experience the material.
  2. Operable: Users can interact with and navigate the material.
  3. Understandable: Users can comprehend the material and easily predict how it will behave.
  4. Robust: Users can access the material successfully on many different kinds of devices (for example, you don’t lose content or structure when moving from a web browser to a screen reader).
There are a variety of resources available to assist districts in making their websites more accessible:

Language barriers

While there’s no general law mandating districts to translate all their communications and content for their employees, some laws require particular steps be taken. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers whose workforce comprises a significant portion of employees who are not literate in English to provide certain notices in a language employees understand.
 
TASB HR Services is in the process of translating the following notices to Spanish to assist districts whose workforce fits the FMLA description:
  • General Notice of Rights and Responsibilities
  • Notice of Eligibility and Rights and Responsibilities
  • Designation Notice
The sample notices will be available in the HR Library soon. The State Board of Educator Certification (SBEC) Parent Notice form has already been translated into Spanish and can be accessed under the Contracts and Assignments section of the HR Library (myTASB login required).
 
Districts with a high percentage of foreign language speakers should work to accommodate the communication needs of their employees. Translating relevant documents and web pages should be a priority districts address sooner rather than later.
 
Ultimately, the purpose of improving online accessibility issues and overcoming language barriers is to better serve district employees. And while there may not be explicit federal rules dictating changes, it’s better to take precautionary measures and avoid potential lawsuits in the future by addressing these topics now.