By Jules Knox
Reporter/Anchor Global News
In the midst of a digital revolution with smartphones and apps, there are some people who are fighting a battle so they don’t get left behind. A blind Okanagan parent is speaking out after School District 23 introduced an app that he says makes it difficult for him to report his daughters’ absences from class.
When School District 23 recently introduced a new app for parents to report their child’s absence from class, not everybody was able to fully use it.
Derek Wilson is blind. The app the school district chose is inaccessible, he said.
“I think that the school district, if they’re going to use public funds to provide a service, then as a parent, I have a right to expect to use that service, and the truth is that I can’t,” Wilson said.
“And it’s impacting the safety of my children.”
Wilson uses a screen reader on his phone, which is software that converts text to speech.
When he initially signed on to use the app, Wilson said he wasn’t surprised that it wasn’t fully accessible to him.
“I deal with this every day, multiple times a day,” he said. “It wasn’t a surprise, but it was a disappointment because it hit close to home.”
Wilson has two young daughters in the school district.
“I’m starting to feel like a valued member of the community, and when things like this happen, it just reminds me: ‘Oh yeah, I’m different,’ he said. “And I need to advocate for my rights.”
Why an app is needed
The school district said the School Messenger app was introduced to help improve student safety.
“A few years back, if we were to have an emergency happen at a school or across the district, we had no great way of, in a timely way, contacting all our families,” Jordan Kleckner, the district principal of learning technology, said.
So the school district introduced the School Messenger system, which allows it to contact families quickly, he said.
It also has a feature called “Safe Arrival,” which allows schools to collect absences and communicate with parents quickly, Kleckner said.
“In the past, parents would call the school, say their child was absent, and the school would collect all that, try to figure out who is unaccounted for, and then call those parents,” he said. “And that manual process could take hours.”
The system has been slowly rolled out across the district, Kleckner said.
Kevin Kardaal, the school district’s superintendent, emphasized that accessibility is a priority and said the app gives users different ways to communicate.
“There are three options to ensure inclusivity. One is a web-based app, then you have the mobile app, which [Wilson] is talking about, but we also have a voice-call app so that anyone can call a toll-free number,” he said.
“The solution itself was very accessible,” Kleckner said, adding that there weren’t any parents that weren’t able to use at least one of the options offered by the new system.
The school district tries to also accommodate parents who might not have access to smartphones or technology, as well as those with disabilities, he added.
“No matter what, when you put any system in place when you’re talking 50,000-plus parents, you’re going to have some parents with unique needs,” Kleckner said.
The school district said since hearing from Wilson, it has asked the developer to improve app accessibility.
“We’ve made a client request, and we suggest that the gentleman actually use the voice call-in option, which makes the [program] accessible,” Kardaal said.
“It’s about providing accessibility through choices, and we provided that accessibility,” he added.
Wilson said he was pleased that the school district is working towards a more accessible solution for the app.
He noted that there were several comments about the School Messenger app’s inaccessibility in its reviews.
“The vendor, what do you know, they were already aware that accessibility was an issue because there are comments about it in the app store. This wasn’t news to them,” Wilson said. “But the fact that they’re going to need to address it if they want to scale out their product across the province, that is news to them.”
“They didn’t realize the school district was going to actually stand behind me and make this a priority,” Wilson said. “And to be honest, I was a little bit shocked by that because I don’t often get that kind of support. This is a success story in the making.”
By sharing his story, Wilson is hoping to raise awareness that it’s not just accessibility in the physical world that should be a priority: it’s needed in the digital world too.
“It’s the same conversation that’s been happening for decades now, and now we’re into a digital revolution where I’m talking about an app, but it’s really a new chapter in an old book,” he said.
Software needs to be designed with accessibility in mind from the beginning of a project, Wilson said.
“Accessibility is not just about blind people accessing information,” Wilson said. “It’s about people with motor impairments, dyslexia, learning disabilities, cognitive or episodic disabilities.”
Wilson is concerned that unlike every other provincial jurisdiction in Canada, B.C. does not currently have a human rights commission that reports to the legislature but a tribunal that reports to the attorney general.
“We live in a world where digital-accessibility compliance is less enforceable than the speed limit,” Wilson said. “If you break the speed limit, you can get a ticket. There’s a financial penalty. There is no financial penalty for creating an inaccessible website or app or digital product.”
“And this is creating very real barriers in the workforce,” Wilson said.
While there are hundreds of lawsuits filed against private-sector companies for inaccessible websites in the U.S., Wilson said he isn’t aware of any in Canada.
“Because we don’t have legislation that forces companies to comply.”
The province’s former commission was dismantled in 2002.
However, the provincial government announced in August that it would re-establish an independent human rights commissioner who reports to the legislative assembly.
It passed the amendments during the fall legislative session, and ministry staff are currently working on establishing some of the preliminary aspects of the commission, according to the Ministry of the Attorney General.
The provincial government said it expects the commissioner to be in place by the summer of 2019.
The commissioner would be responsible for examining and addressing discrimination issues, as well as educating people about human rights.
The proposed legislation followed an eight-week public engagement conducted in the fall of 2017.