Advocate Moves Needle on Website Accessibility
School districts among those targeted
Every year, thousands of complaints flow into the office tasked with investigating disability discrimination for the U.S. Department of Education.
This year, Marcie Lipsitt, a special education advocate from Michigan, has been responsible for about 500 of those complaints—and counting.
Lipsitt's focus is on the websites of school districts and other educational institutions, which she says widely disregard the needs of users who are blind or visually impaired, or who cannot use a mouse to navigate a page. Other website problems she has spotted include videos with no captions, or text and background color combinations that are a strain for people with low vision.
Her letters have gotten results. In June, the Education Department's office for civil rights announced that it had entered into settlement agreements over website accessibility with schools, districts, and departments of education in seven states and in Guam.
All of those complaints originated with Lipsitt, who fires off at least a couple of letters a day from her home in Franklin, 20 miles outside Detroit.
"I have nothing to lose but time and sleep," said Lipsitt, who squeezes in the letters in addition to her work as a lay advocate, helping families with special education disputes.
But Lipsitt, who is not visually impaired, said this is about more than being a prolific gadfly.
The proposed regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act say that, in many cases, placing information on a website is sufficient for states and districts to meet public reporting requirements. But what use is it to the public if that essential information can't be read by everyone? Lipsitt and other advocates want the regulations to state that if states and districts are allowed to use their websites as the equivalent of a town crier, then those sites should be usable for everyone.
"If those final regulations don't include web accessibility, then shame on everyone," Lipsitt said.
Some of the elements behind accessible web design are clear to any user, such as well-organized sites that feature obvious navigational pathways and multiple ways to access information.
There are also some technological requirements that might be invisible to users of standard web browsers, but are essential to those who use screen readers—software that converts text into synthesized speech.
For example, imagine using a word-processing program to type a block of text with a title. To distinguish the title from the text, a user might enlarge the font and make it bold. Those changes are visual clues that those words should be considered separately from the text that follows.
But those visual changes on a website mean nothing to screen-reader programs without embedded codes that tell software that certain words are meant to be a header. Without such coding, screen readers only see an undifferentiated block of text.
Images present a similar problem. An accessible website would include a specially coded image description. Without that coding, a screen reader will only spit out a file name, such as "school_123.jpg."
School districts and educational institutions are hardly alone in having poorly designed websites, said Marla Runyan, the lead accessibility consultant with Perkins Solutions, which advises government agencies, retail outlets, and educational institutions on website usability. Perkins Solutions is under the umbrella of the Perkins School for the Blind, the oldest school for the blind in the United States.
"The intent of your website is that you have something you want to share or sell," Runyan said. "Why would you shut out that many people?"
No one would think of physically slamming the door in the face of a blind person, but impossible-to-navigate websites are the computer equivalent of the same action, she said.
"There's nothing more frustrating than being a fully capable individual, but yet I have this barrier in front of me to keep me from doing what I'm able to do," she said.
Slow to Change
But entities have been slow to change unless they've been hit by legal action, Runyan said. Both Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the 26-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act set guidelines for technology accessibility, but those rules have stagnated while internet use has grown in leaps and bounds.
Experts in the field are waiting for the government to release refreshed guidelines. But in the meantime, the Education Department and the Justice Department have said that websites should follow the accessibility guidelines published by the World Wide Web Consortium, an international standards organization.
Lipsitt's letter-writing campaign started back in February 2014, when Michigan proposed some changes to its special education regulations that she protested. She was also angry that the monthlong comment period required people to either mail a letter to a post office box, or to navigate a complicated web portal. Without knowing anything about website accessibility at the time, she filed a complaint. Michigan ended up in an agreement in June 2015 to revamp its website.
After filing a few more complaints against other entities, in 2016 Lipsitt started her campaign in earnest, using computer software that evaluates websites for their usability. At the request of another advocate, she checked the site of the New Mexico Department of Education. Then she checked the New York City district, because she was unhappy with an article she had read about the city's mayor, Bill de Blasio.
At that point, Lipsitt decided to check the website of every state's department of education. Then she moved on to the education websites of the territories, such as Puerto Rico and Guam. Next came the country's 100 largest school districts. She has filed complaints against charter schools, virtual schools, and schools for the deaf and blind. She has also turned her attention to other entities, such as the New York Public Library and PBS, the public broadcasting network.
Lipsitt said the Education Department told her that the office for civil rights has assigned a disability expert to oversee all of her complaints.
Officials at the department would not confirm this, saying that privacy rules prevent it from revealing information about complainants. But a department spokesman said that anyone can file a complaint, that all complaints are evaluated to see if they warrant further investigation, and that it's not unusual for several complaints to come from one person.
The Juneau, Alaska, district is one of the school systems that entered into a settlement agreement with the Education Department in June. (Lipsitt's complaints have also included school districts that serve state capitals.) Kristin Bartlett, the district's chief of staff, said that the complaint came at the same time the school system was looking for a new website vendor.
In better financial times, the district had a dedicated web manager. In recent years, it had outsourced that work to companies that it thought were providing accessible pages, Bartlett said.
The new web vendor is providing services at a lower cost than the previous web vendor, Bartlett said, and the district is in the process of training employees in accessibility guidelines. Employees in the district who use screen readers and other assistive technology will also serve as monitors, Bartlett said.
The complaint and investigation "has created a lot of awareness about something that we want to be doing anyway, and that we thought we were doing," she said. "But now we're doing it better. It's a benefit for us to be looking at this more closely."
Vol. 35, Issue 37, Page 7Published in Print: August 3, 2016, as Advocate Moves Needle on Website Accessibility