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Strides in special education have not caught up with technology, leaving disabled students in the digital dust as their peers type and swipe through daily lessons.
Federal investigations in Utah and across the country are drawing attention to the lag this summer, highlighting just how difficult it can be for disabled parents, students and others to access school websites and curriculum available to their peers.
"When it comes to the new media of educating," said Sachin Pavithran, chairman of the U.S. Access Board, "schools just haven't kept up."
It's a frustration Jacob Hansen's family knows well, even though his mom, Jodi Hansen, says Alpine School District has "really gone out of their way" to accommodate her 16-year-old son. Jacob is an aspiring video game designer and sci-fi writer with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that hinders muscle movement.
At Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs, administrators hired a full-time aide to make sure Jacob could attend the school.
For the last eight years, Jodi Hansen has prodded administrators in annual meetings to install dictation software she purchased for Jacob, who has limited control of his limbs. But the school has not set up the program on a computer set aside for her son.
Jacob jokes that "I can find my way around the computer or the tablet easier than my school's hallways" in his wheelchair. But he needs the software, he said, to work independently on his essays without having to dictate to an aide.
"It's just been this one issue," his mom added. "I think that they try. I just think that it never quite gets there."
Jacob's experience is not rare, in part because American schools still are awaiting specific guidance from the Department of Justice to take effect six years after draft rules on website and computer access for disabled people were released.
But another U.S. agency is moving ahead.
The Department of Education is kickstarting changes in Utah and across the nation to help all students access online homework portals. It came to agreements with Granite School District in July and the Utah Board of Education in August, forcing the agencies to review their practices and submit a step-by-step corrective plan. Its civil rights division now is looking into Alpine School District, as well as Jordan School District and the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind.
Michigan-based activist Marcie Lipsitt spurred those inquiries and more than 200 others nationwide by filing formal complaints with the education department's Office for Civil Rights. Her sister and son have dyslexia and hyperlexia, and she became unnerved, she said, by what she called a systemic lack of website access for disabled people.
"People are being discriminated against," she said.
Pushing for upgrades • The federal probes in Utah have identified a host of issues previously unknown to local school administrators, most of whom had not heard any similar concerns from staff, students or their families. Pictures and graphics on the agencies' sites, for example, were missing "alt tags," which software programs use to describe images aloud to vision-impaired users. Several of the websites could be accessed only by those who can use a computer mouse. Others had colors that were too similar for vision-impaired people to decipher. And video captioning wasn't always an option.
Without specific regulations from the feds, many schools have declined to pour time and money into those upgrades, said Michael Gamel-McCormick, who oversees research and policy for the Maryland-based Association of University Centers on Disabilities.
Before the wave of civil rights settlements this summer, Gamel-McCormick said, it was up to families to push schools.
"The parents of a student have to complain. The district has to respond to that. And not every district is a good actor, so it can be frustrating," he said.
At Westlake High School, Principal Gary Twitchell said he could not comment on specifics but stressed Alpine School District is fast to address any requests from students and families. District spokeswoman Kimberly Bird in an email said talk-to-type programs are available for students whose parents fill out a form requesting the technology. Bird said a team of district employees sets up the software.
Jodi Hansen said she didn't recall hearing about the paperwork in her meetings with school officials.
Nationwide, schools are on the hook to make sure their websites and coursework are available to anyone with a disability, not wait for requests, said Cyndi Rowland of Utah State University's Center for Persons with Disabilities.
"The courts have been really crystal clear," Rowland said, "that you shouldn't be doing after-the-fact accommodations."
In lawsuits from California to New Jersey, judges have ruled that schools, universities and even online businesses should expect that a disabled person will use their services, and create their web pages accordingly.
In 2014, the same civil rights unit reviewing the cases warned schools that failing to provide appropriate special education and related services violate the federal law barring discrimination on the basis of disability. Such resources could include physical therapy, test-taking adjustments and forgiving absences due to the disability, the law states.
Flouting the law could threaten a district's funding, but agencies generally settle any violation.
As part of their agreements with the office, the 66,000-student Granite district and the state board turned in a plan to make sure sites have working "alt tags," among other changes.
The U.S. Department of Justice last summer released a similar, non-binding checklist recommending that schools pair any sounds on their sites with descriptions and text that can read buttons aloud based on 1998 recommendations from the World Wide Web Consortium.
If Congress passes the proposal, it will be the most specific and clear guidance to date. It is up for public comment until October.
Technology, training and connections • Overhauling sites is getting easier, experts contend, as web design becomes cheaper and more intuitive. But there are still obstacles.
"Now we're at a point where the technology and the software is more readily available, but we don't have the training and the connections we need," said Gamel-McCormick.
The Utah State University-based nonprofit WebAIM is one of a few organizations nationwide that coach CEOs, school principals and others on web accessibility. Alpine and Jordan districts are sending employees there this summer.
Special education teachers could often use more technology training, and district website designers don't generally receive comprehensive disability training, Rowland said.
Utah's school board has no explicit standards for web accessibility, but points districts to the broad federal guidance, said Jennifer Slade, the anti-discrimination specialist at the state board.
Slade's office advises and trains school employees who seek guidance from the board, and generally begins working on issues within 24 hours. Sometimes, that means referring school leaders to USU's technical assistance network or the Denver chapter of the national Equity Assistance Centers.
"We just give them the resources" Slade said, "and they determine how to make that work best."
Last year, the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind hired an outside contractor to redesign its site for about $3,500, taking input from northern Utah's hearing and vision-impaired communities, said Superintendent Joel Coleman.
But federal education officers investigating the Ogden-based school this summer told employees that there were still issues, including links to YouTube videos that lacked captions.
"It's the little things that make sense to me," Coleman said, "but we didn't know because no one pointed it out before."
Alpine is tweaking colors on its sites and adding a form that allows people to report what they can't access, Bird said.
"What we've learned in this is we can improve," she said. "We don't want to be in a case where we're discriminating against anyone."