Feds call out Juneau schools website for inaccessibility to people with low vision, deafness

The federal government is cracking down on the Juneau School District because its website discriminates against people with disabilities. People living with conditions like low vision and deafness use special features on their computers to make surfing the web possible.

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Brin Marx builds websites for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. He uses high-contrast accessibility features and reading software to compensate for his low vision. (Photo by Quinton Chandler, KTOO - Juneau)
Brin Marx builds websites for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. He uses high-contrast accessibility features and reading software to compensate for his low vision. (Photo by Quinton Chandler, KTOO – Juneau)

The Juneau School District was called out by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights after receiving a complaint about the district’s website.

Kristin Bartlett is the school district spokeswoman. Bartlett said, “A complaint had been filed with them because certain pages of its website were not accessible to people with disabilities.”

The department found similar problems with 10 other schools and education groups in seven states including the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibit government agencies and any entity that gets federal money from discriminating against people with disabilities.

In a settlement with the Department of Education, the district and the other education groups agreed to fix their sites.

“In July we’ll be transitioning to a new website and that service provider operates by what’s called the web content accessibility guidelines,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett said those guidelines are like best practices for web building.

The Department of Education lists examples of problems disabled people might have with a website in a press release. It might be hard to understand, so we found somebody who could show us.

Brin Marx works for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. He has low vision and works in IT writing webpages.

Brin Marx says this backlit keyboard is extremely helpful for helping him deal with low vision. (Photo by Quinton Chandler, KTOO - Juneau)
Brin Marx says this backlit keyboard is extremely helpful for helping him deal with low vision. (Photo by Quinton Chandler, KTOO – Juneau)

At his desk, he works on the agency’s website and other internet applications. He has pretty standard equipment. PC, dual computer screens. It could be any workstation in any office — until you notice his operating system narrating webpages.

To read from a computer screen, Marx turns on special settings that most PCs have. He runs his mouse cursor over words and a narrator reads to him. He also has a backlit keyboard that illuminates the numbers and letters. He bought it back when his sight was normal but now it’s extremely helpful. His most valuable tool is a high contrast display made for people with low vision.

“What that means is that most colors are black, and there’s no background images or colors, and the text is just white, and the webpage is very plain – usually just the text and the occasional image. Most of the images are gone,” he said.

Marx had normal vision up until three years ago. He said he has a genetic disorder called FEVR, where causes the retina to detach slightly in the later teen years.

“I’m unable to differentiate a lot of colors, seeing in low light and very bright lights – it’s fairly difficult to navigate, recognize people and faces,” he said.

He said there’s been stem cell research into reattaching a retina to the back of the eye, but it’s still just theory and probably wouldn’t help him anyway. So he’s had to adapt.

Marx visits the Juneau School District’s website and gave us his take.

“So this page is pretty interesting actually because normally if I mouse over these links it would read off what the link says obviously, but in this case they don’t and I’m not sure why it doesn’t. You’d have to go out of your way to turn that off,” he said.

Besides the screen reader-hyperlink problem, Marx said the biggest issue is that the website uses a lot of PDFs. Screen readers can’t read PDFs and the high contrast mode he uses to read doesn’t work with them either.

“A lot of PDFs will just be black text on a white background. Maybe people like white text on a black background and that’s just not possible. They’re not able to enlarge the font size if they need to,” Marx said.

Marx said it’s pretty common for websites to be designed without considering people with disabilities. He thinks a lot of designers try to make their websites flashy, which can hurt accessibility.

“One of the biggest problems is people using images instead of real content. They tend to put text in images, which really doesn’t work for screen readers. It’ll either be hidden or they simply won’t be able to read what is in the text,” Marx said.

As part of a deal with the Department of Education, the Juneau School District will eventually have regular compliance audits of its new site.

“A good design should be usable by anyone. That’s really what I strive for. To be good at my job I have to be able to write accessible webpages,” Marx said.

Marx said government websites have among the worst accessibility, ironic considering the federal government passed the laws that protect people with disabilities from discrimination.