Schoolchildren with disabilities face digital gap

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, reported the Salt Lake Tribune (

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 kick starting 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.

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