In 2017, disability rights activist Marcie Lipsitt filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the University of Oregon, alleging that several of UO’s webpages are not accessible to people with disabilities.
She estimates that she’s filed around 2,400 civil rights complaints to the department’s Office for Civil Rights, some from her couch on her iPad. (In one instance, she crashed the Notes app on her iPad and had to get it fixed at an Apple store.)
Sometimes, the websites of these schools might not have pictures with alt-text that describes what’s in the image, Lipsitt tells the Emerald. Other times, videos might not have closed captioning for the deaf.
After Lipsitt filed her complaint, UO began funding new web accessibility efforts, hired a new full-time position for digital accessibility and established a website-accessibility complaint page, among other efforts. The Emerald reached out to Lipsitt to ask about her work.
Q: Tell us about the complaints you’ve filed so far.
A: On March 5, 2018, after I filed 2,400 complaints, [U.S. Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos wanted to shut down my volunteer efforts, and the Office for Civil Rights published a revision to their case processing manual. And without any public comment — without it going into the Federal Register — created a new procedure, section 108T, which I call the 108T for terrible, literally gave them license to dismiss complaints filed by one person. Even though these were all individual complaints. I researched each and every one of them individually… Attorneys around the country started calling it the "Marcie Lipsitt" rule… Then within two weeks, the federal Office for Civil Rights dismissed 662 of my complaints, and 562 were previously opened investigations, like at the University of Oregon. [This refers to investigations that had been in progress but that were later closed.]
Q: That must have been a lot of work that you put into each individual case.
A: But yeah, no, are you kidding? Nobody has any idea how depressing it was to get all those. I was getting emails, dismissing 100 complaints at a time.
Q: You said that you had individually investigated all of these cases?
A: I looked at no fewer than 10 to 15 webpages on every single website that I filed a complaint on.
Q: For those who are confused, what are some examples of how a website can be inaccessible to someone with disabilities?
A: So the easiest things to understand are, when you are looking at any kind of picture on a website, if you are blind, you can't see that picture. That picture, to be accessible, has to have what we call “alt-text.” It has to have text that describes the picture. And videos have to be closed captioned, but not just closed captioned. They have to be meaningfully closed captioned. So sometimes you see a video that's closed captioned, but it's not closed captioned properly, and it doesn't make any sense. You have individuals who have Parkinson's, fine motor impairments. Can’t move their hands. They have to have a way to access a keyboard.
Q: How long does it take to file each of them?
A: 30 to 45 minutes. When I filed the first one against the Michigan Department of Education, I knew nothing about web accessibility. I knew nothing. I learned so much through that complaint investigation. And then it was an attorney in the Office for Civil Rights who one day said to me, “Well, we use PowerMapper.” I said, “What’s PowerMapper?” It's an automated web checker.... So I learned how to do an automated check. I learned how to do a manual check. And it matters to me, it should matter to people that not one state school in America for the deaf, the blind or the deaf-blind had an accessible website. Think about that. You've got all these students there that are deaf, or deaf and blind. And the website was not accessible. That's insane.
There's a real component to this that people don't understand that, why should anyone be discriminated against and denied access to a website or to the internet? Especially when these websites receive federal funding.
Q: Where do you think the inability to provide access to web resources comes from? Is it a matter of not being aware of the issue?
A: Some of it is not being aware. Some of it is cost. I’ve heard along the line that some of these school districts would price out creating an accessible website and didn't want to spend the money. So for many, it was not, not understanding. The Department of Justice was supposed to put out final rules on web accessibility, and they never did. So it's not even completely clear to these institutions how to be in compliance on web accessibility.
My goal, once I started filing the quantity of them, I said to anybody that asked: I am one person, I can't file 50,000 of these. But maybe I can file enough to draw attention to it. And just maybe, institutions will bring their websites into compliance because no one knew where I was going to file. I mean, I filed against the University of Oregon, I think, during March Madness. I think they were one of the basketball teams that was in March Madness.
Q: Your childhood experiences of advocating for your younger sister — who has dyslexia — partially brought you to disability activism?
A: That is correct. I have a sister who's three and a half years younger. And my mother said that from a very young age that I was born carrying a soapbox. And I fought for my sister, and I fought for other children who had disabilities and were being discriminated against, and children who were economically disadvantaged. By high school, I was fighting for state and federal special ed laws and rules. And then my son [who has learning disabilities] was born. My son is 30 and a half. And then I was an advocate for my son and for family or friends.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.