It’s not often that an entity as large as Miami-Dade County Public Schools has the accessibility of its computer software challenged in court, but that’s what blind employee Janice A. Bartleson did — and she prevailed Monday.
The school board agreed to make all current and future websites and software accessible to users with disabilities countywide, giving $100,000 to Bartleson and $150,000 in attorney fees.
Matthew Dietz, founder and litigation director at Miami’s Disability Independence Group Inc. teamed with the National Federation of the Blind to negotiate the settlement for Bartleson — who’s also Dietz’s neighbor.
Bartleson, who has a Ph.D, is a counselor and emotional/behavioral disabilities clinician at the school. In her 27 years there, the school has become increasingly reliant on technology. For Bartleson, that’s meant asking co-workers to read documents or type text for her, even taking work home so her daughter could help.
“Since employment now is so focused on what’s on your computer, if you don’t have access to the programs you really don’t have the same opportunities others have, and you don’t have the same opportunities of success that others have,” Dietz said.
Not only was it a personal frustration, but Bartleson also worried about other blind employees and students who were missing out.
“When a link, a form, a PDF is sent to you or you are asked to fill out something, you click and hope,” Bartleson said. “Sometimes the page or tab opens and you can see all of the links but you cannot open them. It is like looking in a store, seeing something you want to check out, but the door is locked and you can’t get in.”
After exhausting the school’s internal procedures, Bartleson filed a lawsuit in April 2018.
The school board responded with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, and argued Bartleson should have gone through a “Collective Bargaining Agreement” instead of bringing the suit.
The two parties eventually came together following court-ordered mediation.
School board attorney Walter J. Harvey and assistant attorney Sara M. Marken did not respond to requests for comment before deadline, but Dietz said he had no pushback from the board.
“They understood that there was an issue and they endeavored to fix it,” Dietz said. “This is not an expensive issue, so what it really took was getting the folks with the knowledge in there and figuring out how to do it in a cost-effective method.”
U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore gave the green light to a consent decree Monday, dismissing the lawsuit and setting deadlines.
Read the full consent decree:
Dietz hopes the agreement will have broad implications, providing an incentive for contractors vying for school’s attention and encouraging programmers to create accessible software packages from the get-go.
“There’s no difference between this and the old-time physical barrier removal cases that were always brought,” Dietz said. “Once people know how to build something correctly they should build it correctly.”
In a statement Tuesday, president of the National Federation of the Blind Mark Riccobono said he commends the agreement.
“We look forward to our collaboration with the school board to make this a reality,” Riccobono said. “We will continue to fight for the rights of all blind employees until artificial barriers to inclusion and success no longer threaten the dignity and livelihood of blind workers.”