Woman Fights For Accessible School Websites
DETROIT — School districts across the U.S., be warned: If your websites aren’t accessible to people with disabilities, Marcie Lipsitt is ready to take action.
Lipsitt, a Franklin, Mich. resident and an outspoken special education advocate, has been on a one-woman crusade, filing hundreds of federal complaints against schools, school districts, state education departments and other public agencies nationwide if she finds their websites aren’t accessible to people with vision and hearing disabilities.
Common problems include websites missing text that describes images to people who are blind or visually impaired and who use special software, content that can only be used by people who have a mouse, and videos that aren’t captioned or aren’t accurately captioned.
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“I will file as long as I need to file,” Lipsitt said. “I’m hoping my efforts will inspire others to file these complaints. If one person files in every school district, wow, we’d have tens of thousands of accessible school districts.”
Her crusade is getting action: Of the 400 complaints Lipsitt has filed — most of them within the last six months — the federal Office for Civil Rights that is part of the U.S. Department of Education has opened investigations into about 175.
And so far, the federal office has entered into resolution agreements with nearly 20 schools, school districts and education departments.
Eleven of those were highlighted in a recent news release from the Education Department, which praised them for voluntarily entering into an agreement.
“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, assistant secretary for civil rights, said in the news release.
Lipsitt has filed complaints against the largest school districts in the nation, and every state education department.
And her crusade is getting attention. She regularly receives messages from parents or advocates in other states asking her to file complaints against their school districts or look into whether their websites are accessible.
Among them was Cheryl Poe of Virginia Beach, Va. Poe is president and founder of Advocating 4 Kids, which provides advocacy services to the parents of children who receive special education services. When she heard about Lipsitt’s efforts, she asked her for help.
“Marcie taught me how to file a website complaint,” Poe said. “I’m just proud of her efforts.”
Lipsitt said what is particularly disappointing is that some schools that cater to students with visual and/or hearing disabilities have non-compliant websites. One of the recent resolution agreements was with the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind.
“Those are the most outrageous to me,” Lipsitt said. “Think about it. You have children who are blind or visually impaired and deaf or hard of hearing. And the websites for these children are inaccessible?”
She blames, in large part, companies that design websites for schools.
“The hope is that superintendents will band together and boycott these web designers that have put them into this out-of-compliance predicament,” Lipsitt said. “The problem is I can’t file complaints against web designers and the OCR can’t go after them.”
Lipsitt’s effort began with the Michigan Department of Education. More than a year ago, the MDE entered into a resolution agreement with the federal office, thanks to a complaint Lipsitt filed in February 2014.
Lipsitt praised the Michigan agency for its response.
“They have been working diligently at making their website accessible,” she said. “They are taking this very, very seriously.”
“At the end of the day, I know what I’m doing is a drop in a leaking ocean,” Lipsitt said. “I want people to think about the fact that we have civil rights.”
© 2016 the Detroit Free Press
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