What is the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and what do they do?
The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is a federal agency with the responsibility of ensuring equal access to education through the enforcement of civil rights. Several federal agencies have offices for civil rights attached to them, but the OCR in the Department of Education is specifically responsible for enforcing numerous federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance from the Department of Education. This includes all public education institutions—i.e., all state education agencies, elementary and secondary school systems, colleges and universities, vocational schools, and proprietary schools—as well as state vocational rehabilitation agencies, libraries, and museums that receive U.S. Department of Education funds.
The federal laws that OCR enforces prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age. The agency is specifically responsible for enforcing two laws that prohibit discrimination based on disability in public education, as well as the other entities mentioned in the previous paragraph. These two laws are Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
If an individual believes that he or she has been discriminated against on the basis of disability, he or she can contact OCR for assistance. OCR accepts complaints from individuals who believe they have been discriminated against and provides technical assistance to individuals or institutions seeking information. A complaint can also be filed by another person or institution on behalf of an individual who believes he or she has been discriminated against. The agency can be contacted through telephone, electronic (email) means, or in person. After receiving a complaint, OCR will investigate and attempt to resolve it. This may include in-depth investigation and negotiation with, for example, a public school and typically results in voluntary compliance agreements between the institution and OCR. If the complaint is not resolved to the individual's satisfaction through this administrative process, he or she can always pursue a legal complaint. In some cases, if OCR does not resolve the issue, the agency may request that the U.S. Department of Justice file a lawsuit.
As stated on the OCR website, the headquarters office in Washington, D.C., is the appropriate place to make inquiries related to "national policy, to make a Freedom of Information request for information that is national in scope, or to request publications or other assistance that is not available online." Contact the regional enforcement offices if you want to file a complaint (or use the online complaint form) or if you need technical assistance on a problem or assistance regarding civil rights issues. To locate the appropriate enforcement office, select the state or territory in your region using the Contact OCR web page.
OCR compliance agreements are public record but are not always easily accessible unless one specifically requests a copy through the Freedom of Information request mentioned above. For several examples of such agreements concerning web accessibility, consult Web Accessibility and Individuals with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: The Legal Issues and Web Access Considerations under Section 504 & Title II, a November 2002 presentation by OCR senior civil rights attorney Tim Spofford.