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For blind students anticipating virtual learning this fall, inaccessible learning platforms are top concern

Published: Aug. 4, 2020 at 9:02 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Micah’s world is one of sound. Only able to see light and shadows since birth, his digital devices and audio tools are one of the main ways he interacts with the world around him.

“I like to explore technology,” he explains.

Throughout the interview, the almost-seventh grader takes pride in describing the audio capabilities of his devices, his analysis of his church’s recording capabilities, his drum set--all while twirling his iPod and cycling through apps with Siri, faster than most of us can open an email.

His mother Laura Lafonte says he didn’t once complain when his classes went abruptly virtual in March after COVID-19 hit Wisconsin and the Wausau School District, like every other district in the state, sent students home to finish school online in the wake of Governor Tony Evers’ executive order.

Extroverted and accustomed to an individualized education plan (IEP) that was moving him toward more autonomy at school, Micah suddenly found himself nearly entirely dependent on his mother to navigate the school’s third-party learning platform, ItsLearning, for him--a platform that falls short of accessibility standards, according to the family and the website’s own documentation.

“Whether that’s navigating around the halls of the school independently or doing his coursework and classwork independently, it’s all about independence,” his mother explained of his IEP goals, set through plans required by federal law for students with disabilities.

Now anticipating a virtual return to school in the fall as announced by the district due to public health concerns as COVID-19 spreads in Marathon County, the family is calling for learning platforms with more accessibility. Laura fears Micah could fall behind on those goals, and expects to spend excess time helping him navigate the learning platform and read assignments while her two other children wait.

“He has to rely on me to navigate him around,” Laura explained. “I have to click on all the buttons and all the videos, and a lot of times there’s reading.”

“I need help getting to the actual assignments--and then it gets weird,” Micah explained.

As equal access to education comes to the forefront as school districts weigh virtual and in-person options with safety considerations for the fall amid the covid-19 pandemic, some platforms are better than others. Micah experiences very few issues with Google Classrooms (or any Google product, he says); ItsLearning, however, is a constant frustration. The 2020 Web Accessibility Annual Report found the vast majority of websites have compliance issues with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), after a 2018 ruling by the Department of Justice ruled that websites, as public spaces, would have to comply with the 1990 law. For students with disabilities stuck in a virtual learning environment (as they were in March) or facing one in the fall, inaccessible learning platforms could put schools at risk of violation of another federal act: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Under the IDEA, the federal government requires schools to provide students with disabilities with a free individualized education plan, or IEP, that is tailored to their needs. A school’s designated IEP team will work with the family to set goals for the student throughout the year; for Micah, those goals revolve around working toward higher levels of independence in his daily life.

Then COVID-19 hit Wisconsin in March, children were sent home to learn virtually, and Micah was suddenly dependent on his mother to navigate the online learning platform due to its accessibility issues.

“It’s like we took 20 steps forward the first part of the year,” Laura explained, “And now we’re taking those 20 steps back.” After being told at the end of July that all WSD students should expect to start the school year virtually for at least the first month of the 2020-2021 school year, the prospect is daunting.

The Wausau School District, when reached for comment, explained they were still developing their special education plans for the coming year--plans that may involve a hybrid approach that incorporates in-person, teleconference, neutral site, and a range or combination of other options.

“As always, safety is our top priority,” the statement read. “After safety, our goal is to maintain meaningful and effective access to instruction and services for students with disabilities. We recognize that the virtual setting can accomplish this for most, but not all, students with disabilities.”

Given the broad-ranging array of websites not compliant with the ADA, Micah isn’t the only visually-impaired student--or the only student with a disability--that faces falling behind on IEPs. John Fritz, President of the National Federation of the Blind--Wisconsin, said he’s hearing a lot of complaints across the state from blind students facing similar challenges.

“We just celebrated the 30th year of the (ADA),” Fritz said. “And we’re still having problems with it.”

Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Education reported that almost 14% of all students had a disability of some kind in the 2017-2018 school year. About .1% of all enrollment, or 27,000 students, were visually-impaired.

Key accessibility issues for blind students involve links, forms, buttons and other navigation tools on a website. While most systems like iOS or Android have screen-reader functions that (to a greater or lesser extent) can make a lot of the web accessible to the blind, a website has to be coded so that the screen-reader (or a braille sense) can interact with and understand things like forms, menus and buttons.

“If he can’t see where a video is and see a link and know, like, where to click on the screen of his Chromebook—then that’s not accessible for him, and there’s no voice that comes on and says ‘go down four inches and over one inch,’” Laura explained.

When reached for comment, ItsLearning, the global learning platform utilized by the WSD in the 2019-2020 school year for virtual learning, directed 7 Investigates to their web standards compliance page--a document that explains how compliant a website is with the latest web accessibility guidelines. ItsLearning had an array of ‘exceptions’ to fully compliant standards, including a list of compliance issues with navigation guidelines.

“There are still school districts--as well as the programs school districts choose to use and purchase—who are still not doing this,” Fritz explained, in reference to compliance with the ADA. “These are requirements that should have been already taken into consideration.”

It’s unclear whether the platform will be a part of WSD’s special education plan moving forward.

“The WSD Special Education Department will use the Individualized Education Plan or IEP team process to make determinations about a student’s educational program on an individual basis,” the WSD said in part of their statement. “Special education programs and services will be delivered in accordance with district, county, state, and federal health guidelines and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”

Across the state, IDEA violation complaints are nothing new. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has resolved roughly 100 or so IDEA cases annually for the past few years; 48 cases so far this year have been submitted (14 of them from the 2019 portion of the school year), according to a spokesperson. The DPI handles disputes involved with special education plans that can’t be worked out at a local school district level; in a virtual learning era, the DPI recommends that families first discuss issues with their special education team to find resolutions consistent with any public health orders.

“(Local education agencies) must ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to these learning opportunities to the greatest extent possible and that supports provided are appropriately tailored to the individualized needs of the student,” their instructions read online. “This may require using different instructional methodologies or different formats.”

For Laura and Micah, the goal is independence; the chief obstacle is accessibility.

“It needs to be more inclusive.”

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