Is your website accessible to deaf and blind people?

After the 2016 presidential election, Marcie Lipsitt looked up the alma maters of Donald J Trump’s chief advisers and persuaded the Education Department to investigate them for illegally having websites inaccessible to people with disabilities.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

At the height of this year’s NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, she similarly triggered federal scrutiny of colleges represented in the 'Sweet Sixteen' regional semi-finals. Morgan State University became one of her targets because she had met one of its blind students in Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

Lipsitt, a veteran disability-rights activist from Franklin, Michigan, says she regards virtually any college as an easy target, because nearly all have web pages inaccessible to people who are blind or deaf, or who have motor or cognitive disabilities.

Since early last year Lipsitt has asked the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate more than 360 colleges for online violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which bars discriminatory practices, and the Rehabilitation Act, which requires equal access to the websites of programmes receiving a federal subsidy.

Only Princeton University has been cleared of wrongdoing by the civil-rights office, based on the conclusion that its problems were minor and already being fixed. At least 20 colleges have signed agreements with the agency pledging to fix the accessibility problems that it identified.

"Marcie Lipsitt is really kicking up some dust," says Christian Vinten-Johansen, manager of Pennsylvania State University’s information-technology accessibility team and co-chairman of a group of members of the non-profit group Educause that focuses on Internet-related accessibility concerns. When the group met online on Wednesday, he says, people expressed "a lot of concern" about liability for any failures to comply with the law.

Last month alone, Lipsitt filed complaints against more than 30 higher-education providers, including Carleton College, the City College of San Francisco, the University System of Maryland, and several campuses of the State University of New York.

"I will make as much noise as I can, and I won’t stop," she says.

Widespread vulnerability

Federal investigations are not the only risk that colleges face for having web pages that fail to meet accessibility standards. In the past two years, for example, scores have received threats of lawsuits from a single Pittsburgh-based firm, Carlson Lynch Sweet Kilpela and Carpenter.

Its letters to colleges said its remote analyses had found multiple violations of accessibility standards. But the firm said the colleges could avoid being sued by agreeing to a settlement in which they pay its legal fees and overhaul their sites using a consultant whom it had approved.

The Pittsburgh firm had previously sent similar letters to banks, retailers, and restaurants. Colleges, however, appear especially prone to online violations of disability-rights laws, in large part because they produce their sites through a highly decentralised process in which administrators, academic departments, faculty members, and others often plow ahead without weighing access concerns.

Complicating the picture, the standards for judging online accessibility have been evolving, although the Education Department has in recent years signalled that it expects colleges to follow accessibility guidelines published in 2008 by the World Wide Web Consortium.

"It is not surprising that a college that is acting in good faith is not fully compliant with everything, in part because it is not completely clear what you need to do," says Laura Rothstein, a professor of law at the University of Louisville.

"If your aim is to troll for errors, you are going to find them," says Vinten-Johansen of Penn State. A large research university can spawn a vast number of separate web pages, he says. And it takes exceptional diligence to ensure that those pages accommodate populations such as blind people, who rely on software that reads text aloud; deaf people, who need transcripts to comprehend videos; or people whose mobility impairments prevent them from using a mouse.

"One of the things the internet has done is give us less time to fix things and more things to fix," says L Scott Lissner, who coordinates Ohio State University’s efforts to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act and serves as chairman of the public-policy committee of the Association on Higher Education and Disability.

Quick work

Last year Ohio State itself became the target of an Education Department investigation sparked by one of Lipsitt’s complaints.

Using software that automatically checks websites for accessibility, she identified several of Ohio State’s web pages as containing obstacles to people with disabilities such as impaired vision. The civil-rights office’s initial look at the website found some cause for concern, such as a home page that displayed images without alternative text that could be read automatically.

In October, Ohio State signed a resolution agreement in which it pledged steps such as adopting a new web-accessibility policy by the end of the following month. Lissner says the agreement mainly gave the university deadlines to carry out changes that it had already been making.

Lipsitt says she uses automated accessibility checkers to scrutinise three to eight colleges every day. It takes her about 30 minutes to find sufficient grounds for a federal investigation and to report a college on the civil-rights office’s online complaints form.

The Office for Civil Rights does not identify complainants or comment on pending investigations, but an agency spokesman said last week that it had opened 119 formal investigations of colleges’ web accessibility based on complaints filed since the beginning of last October.

Sending a message

Lipsitt could have let the Education Department preserve her anonymity rather than claim ownership of her complaints against colleges. She expresses pride, however, in her advocacy on behalf of students with disabilities, her full-time occupation for about 20 years. She chronicles her work on a Facebook page called Special Education Wall of Shame, although she now delays identifying the colleges she has complained about because she suspects that lawyers and web developers would use her posts to pounce on potential clients.

Lipsitt’s passion stems partly from having a son with learning disabilities and a younger sister with special needs. Until three years ago, her advocacy work consisted mainly of providing support to parents in their meetings with school administrators, work for which she charged based on the ability to pay.

She says she became concerned about online accessibility in early 2014, upon discovering that the Michigan Department of Education was inviting comment on proposed changes in the state’s special-education policies through a website that was unusable by people with disabilities such as deafness.

Lipsitt filed a federal complaint about the Michigan website and then proceeded to go after hundreds of school districts. Her first target in higher education was a local institution, Oakland Community College, which ended up signing a resolution agreement pledging to regularly conduct accessibility audits and to annually provide training to any staff members who post online content. Her efforts to pressure colleges proceeded slowly at first and kicked into high gear last fall.

"I have no grand illusions that I can file against 25,000 school districts and against every college and university in the country," Lipsitt says, adding that her primary goal is to generate enough awareness of accessibility concerns to inspire schools and colleges to fix their sites voluntarily.

Harm and good

Some college administrators credit Lipsitt with good intentions but say her approach has unintended consequences, such as creating backlogs at the Office for Civil Rights and pressuring colleges to divert time and resources from making the improvements she desires.

"Once an investigation is opened, there is an awful lot of effort that goes into things like reporting," says Vinten-Johansen of Penn State.

Another worry is that colleges will limit their spending on compliance by curtailing how much information they post online, especially when it comes to archived documents that are not easily rendered accessible through adaptive technology.

Last year, in response to a US Justice Department finding that it had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by posting free courses and lectures on online platforms inaccessible to people with certain disabilities, the University of California at Berkeley said it might need to cease posting some online content to ensure it has adequate resources to serve enrolled students.

Most colleges are not in such dire financial straits, however. Peter Blanck, chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University and author of eQuality – The struggle for web accessibility by persons with cognitive disabilities (Cambridge University Press, 2014), says he is frustrated by college administrators who fail to see accessibility as essential to promoting inclusion. He says "any university president of any competence and stature should recognise different ability, and disability, as an element of diversity".

The Trump administration, however, may soon ease pressure on colleges to ensure their websites are accessible. Thomas E Wheeler Jr, an acting assistant attorney general who oversees civil-rights enforcement for the Justice Department, last week told attendees at the annual conference of the National Association of College and University Attorneys that the administration was revisiting the Berkeley decision, reviewing its advice to colleges on web accessibility, and subjecting its enforcement approach to a cost-benefit analysis.

"We get it. Believe me, we get it," he told the college lawyers, who reacted to his remarks with applause.

Lipsitt says she worries that the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights will shelve investigations as part of the Trump administration’s narrowing of enforcement efforts. She vows, regardless of the federal response, to keep filing complaints at the same pace. "I am not going away because accessibility matters to me."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labour, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.