Page 29 - THE Journal, June/July 2017
P. 29

IN 2015 THE Seattle School Board entered into a consent decree to settle a lawsuit brought by Noel Nightingale, a blind parent of a Seattle student. Seattle Public Schools had changed website providers, and Nightingale found she could no longer access the school calendar of events or find schedules or lunch menus. Nor could she help her son with math homework. The online math program wasn’t accessible to those who are blind.
The district agreed to make its current websites accessible, hire an accessibility coordinator, conduct a wide-ranging accessibility audit and create a website portal to help faculty and staff communicate effectively with people with disabilities, according to a story in the Seattle Times.
Sheryl Burgstahler, who founded
and directs the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) Center at the University
of Washington, said the Seattle case demonstrates the need to develop an active approach to accessibility rather than waiting to react to complaints from students and parents.
“It used to be that an accommodation after the fact was somewhat reasonable because there wasn’t so much IT and visual content being used,” she said. “Now it is not reasonable.”
School districts are making resources available on their websites 24x7, Burgstahler noted, and some charter school classes are conducted entirely online. “There is no way to serve a student who is blind through the accommodation model. It just isn’t possible anymore.”
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is responsible for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as they apply to public schools. In the last few years, OCR has been very aggressive in responding to complaints, and some district leaders feel blind-sided by what they see as an unfunded mandate when they get a letter from OCR.
Laura Fisher, an associate attorney in the Hartford office of Shipman & Goodwin LLP, said there were 350 complaints
in 2016 alone. “When I was working
on negotiating some of the resolution agreements, OCR indicated this was a new area of increased attention. Most resolution agreements have required that the district hire an independent auditor familiar with accessibility and then address all the issues found in the audit.”
Fisher said one challenge for districts is that they are being held accountable even though the federal government has not developed specific guidelines around website accessibility. There have been notices of proposed rulemaking filed and withdrawn several times, she added. “The rulemaking
is moving slower than the technology it is trying to regulate. People have been anticipating the regulation for years.”
Marcie Lipsitt, a Michigan-based special education advocate, has helped file many complaints with OCR against school districts nationwide that receive federal funds yet may be in violation of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, said Joel Gerring, in-house counsel for the Michigan Association of School Boards.
With the increasing attention from
OCR and the fact that Lipsitt is based in Michigan, Gerring started getting more calls from district leaders last fall. “I get the impression that most of them understand their responsibilities. But they assumed it would be incredibly expensive to correct, and there is no extra money in Michigan public education right now,” he said. “But
they are finding out that this doesn’t have to break the bank. We encourage them to embrace accessibility and understand it doesn’t have to cost as much as the rumor mill says it does.”
One consultant whose firm focuses
on website accessibility said most school districts are completely ignorant about
the existence of students using assistive technologies and trying to navigate around the online content that schools provide. The Paciello Group’s Brian Landrigan said the OCR’s increased enforcement is definitely a wakeup call to districts.
The OCR is insisting that districts make a plan for new content, he said. That means they pick a date in the future and say that from that point forward, the district will have an operating plan that assures that any content posted online is accessible. “That
is a lofty goal, and a ton of work needs to be done to meet that goal,” Landrigan said. “Districts usually work with subject matter experts to figure out what is the best way to get there.”
They also do an accessibility audit of their current web content. Landrigan said that in performing an audit, his firm uses the same assistive technology disabled people use
to navigate around the web-based material and perform tasks such as registering for
a course or taking a test. “We report those out to the district’s development team and explain how to fix them. Most are easily corrected once the team understands what they need to do.”
Many district leaders are under the false impression that all the third-party content
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Iconic Bestiary; MIRARTI Illustrations/Shutterstock/THE Journal staff

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