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S.C. Charters Agree to Accessibility Changes After Federal Investigation

The U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights has entered into an agreement with the South Carolina Public Charter District to make the district's Internet-based schools accessible to students and parents with disabilities, particularly those with visual impairments. 

The district enrolls about 14,000 students in all, 9,000 of whom are in seven Internet-based schools: Palmetto State e-Cademy, Provost Academy South Carolina, South Carolina Virtual Charter School, South Carolina Calvert Academy, South Carolina Connections Academy, South Carolina Whitmore School, and Cyber Academy of South Carolina. 

Last spring, the civil rights office started investigating online classes at the district, said Wayne Brazell, superintendent of the charter district. It found that the Web-based courses had a lack of alternative text attributes on buttons, especially on video controls; lack of synchronized captioning; inaccessible PDFs; and animations that were not fully labeled. Additionally, some materials provided by third-party vendors were inaccessible, according to the investigation. The department said in a report that those issues prevent people with visual, hearing, and manual impairments, as well as those who use assistive technology, from using the websites in the same way as people without disabilities.  

As a result of the OCR findings, the charter district has agreed to create a Web accessibilty committee that will work with the Internet-based schools to ensure access, develop and put in place a detailed accessibility plan, regularly complete compliance reports, and provide training on accessible Web design. The full agreement includes all the actions the district has agreed to take.

"All persons—with and without disabilities—must be able to obtain school information on a full, equal, and independent basis. This agreement will ensure that persons with disabilities are afforded equal access to the district's Internet-based public charter schools and any future district schools that will provide all or a portion of instruction via the Internet," said Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, in a statement released today. 

Brazell said the interactions with the department have been cooperative. The investigation was not driven by complaints from parents or students, he said, but reflect a current push toward OCR investigation of Web accessibility. Last November, the Education Department said it had entered into a first-of-its-kind agreement with the 1,200-student Virtual Charter School of Ohio, which was also found to have an inaccessible website for people with disabilities. At that time, the department stressed that online charter schools are required to comply with the same federal laws that govern accommodations for traditional public schools. 

"The good news is we jumped right on this and started making changes," Brazell said in an interview. Parents and students have not yet commented on the changes, but Brazell said that more students with visual impairments may be drawn to the program, once they know the webpages and course materials are fully accessible. 

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