A special-education advocate from Michigan who has filed more than 1,000 federal complaints against school districts alleging their websites are inaccessible to students and adults with disabilities has brought her grassroots campaign to Palo Alto.
Marcie Lipsitt, a parent-turned-education advocate, confirmed to the Weekly that she filed a complaint against the district with the Office for Civil Rights, though she is not named in the complaint itself. The federal civil-rights agency notified the district in late January that it was investigating allegations that certain pages on the district's recently redesigned website are not accessible to people with vision impairments and other disabilities.
Lipsitt has filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education's civil-rights office against school districts, charter schools, state schools for the deaf and blind, colleges, universities and public libraries throughout the country, including 71 complaints filed with the federal agency's San Francisco office. Her complaints seek to make districts' websites more accessible to those who are blind, color blind, deaf, hard of hearing, have low vision, have dyslexia or have fine-motor issues and can't use a computer mouse.
"Every person has a civil right to access information equally to individuals without disabilities," she wrote in an email to the Weekly Monday.
Lipsitt said the same issues she has seen elsewhere are present on Palo Alto Unified's website, which was redesigned last summer. Several web pages — on events, students services, meal services, student connectedness, the superintendent's page, home page and YouTube page — are of concern, according to the Office for Civil Rights' Jan. 30 notification letter.
Since filing her first website-accessibility complaint in 2014 against the Michigan Department of Education, Lipsitt said she has started using automated web accessibility checkers to evaluate district websites. Many of her complaints have resulted in voluntary resolution agreements with school districts, including in 11 cases last year.
"As schools, school districts, states and territories turn to the internet as a way to provide relevant and up-to-date information to their audiences in a cost-effective manner, they must make sure they are not inadvertently excluding people with disabilities from their online programs, services, and activities," Catherine Lhamon, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement announcing the settlements in June. "I applaud each of these signatories who have committed to ensuring that their websites are accessible to people with disabilities."
In those 11 investigations, the agency found that important images on all websites were missing text descriptions, called “alt tags,” that describe the images to blind and low-vision users who use special software, according to the statement. Other common problems the agency found included some content was only accessible by computer mouse; parts of the website used color combinations that made text difficult or impossible for people with low vision to see; and videos were not accurately captioned, so they were inaccessible to people who are deaf.
The districts voluntarily agreed to a range of actions, including auditing the content and functionality of their websites, developing a plan to bring their websites into compliance, adopting policies to ensure that all online content in the future will be accessible to people with disabilities and training on website accessibility for appropriate staff.
Lipsitt said she has been "thrilled" to see some school districts take notice of her complaints and proactively work to bring their websites into compliance.
"My hope and goal is for this to happen nationwide," she said.
Under anti-discrimination statute Section 504 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Office for Civil Rights will investigate whether Palo Alto Unified discriminated against students on the basis of disability by excluding them from participating in or denied them the benefits of its programs and services, according to the notification letter sent to the district Jan. 30.
It will also investigate whether the district "failed to take appropriate steps to ensure that its communications with applicants, participants, members of the public, and companions with disabilities are as effective as its communications with others."
The federal agency has requested a set of data from the district, including all policies and procedures regarding creation, modification and editing of the district website; any communication regarding website accessibility for people with disabilities; any complaints or comments received in the last three years regarding website accessibility; and any evaluations or monitoring of the website's accessibility for individuals with disabilities, among other requests for information.
Superintendent Max McGee said that the district needs "more specific information" about concerns flagged on its website before proceeding, but "wants to be accessible." He noted that last fall, a parent complained about the readability of fonts on the website and the district changed them in response.
"We're looking for a few more specifics on what the problem is before we try to fix it," he said. "I'm all for fixing it."
Other local education entities that are facing website-accessibility complaints from Lipsitt include the San Mateo County Office of Education, Pleasanton Unified School District, Oakland Unified School District, Summit Public Schools (which operates two schools in Redwood City) and Aspire Public Schools (which runs two schools in East Palo Alto). Oakland Unified, Summit and Aspire have this year entered into resolution agreements with the Office for Civil Rights, according to Lipsitt.