Mom questions voucher program accessibility

Mom questions voucher program accessibility

Darrell and Allison Hilliker, who are blind, pose near their home in the Valley. They have experienced digital inaccessibility since the day they signed their Empowerment Scholarship Account contract for their children, who also have visual impairments. (PHOTO SPECIAL TO THE ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES)

Digital inaccessibility has been a problem for Allison Hilliker and her family since the day they signed their Empowerment Scholarship Account contract.

Hilliker and her husband are blind, and their children have visual impairments.

Through three years, several ESA directors and the introduction of ClassWallet, the program’s “ADA compliant” platform, Hilliker said she has seen no substantive, consistent solutions to ensure access to the program is equitable.

As the department’s contract with ClassWallet lapses, and the Office of the State Treasurer puts out a request for proposals for a new vendor, Hilliker’s concerns remain.

“There is not, at any stage, at any step of the ESA planning process, any thought given to disabled parent access as far as I can tell,” Hilliker said. “And if there is, it’s only because my husband and I have been pushing hard for it.”

The RFP requires the new platform, and the call center attached to be “ADA compliant.” Both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Arizonans with Disabilities Act hold access to state services and programs should be equitable.

But because both state and federal law do not specifically cite websites, government contractors can claim ADA compliance while access to their websites remains inequitable.

Hilliker signed her daughter up for the ESA program in 2020. The first hurdle was simply signing the ESA contract, as the program used by the department, AdobeSign was not compatible with her screen reader.

Once she was on the program, she saw sporadic problems with the former Bank of America debit card attached to ESA accounts at the time but said using the card was “manageable.”

Then came ClassWallet.

The migration to the new vendor occurred in phases over several months, and homeschooling families were the last to be phased in.

In the 13 months leading up to the switch for Hilliker in July 2021, she emailed, asking for confirmation that she would be able to use the site.

She got assurance from the department that the site would be accessible. But when she first signed on, problems were immediately apparent.

By the time Hilliker was logging onto ClassWallet, her second daughter had also grown old enough to qualify for the program. She quickly found she could not switch between her two daughters’ profiles, rendering her oldest’s account completely inaccessible.

She could access her younger daughter’s account, but “in a limited way.” She could toggle some areas of the ClassWallet marketplace, but she could not place an order. She could view vendors, but she could not submit a payment.

The department contended the site should be accessible, as the company claimed to be “certified” ADA complaint. But amid the continued problems, it referred Hilliker to ClassWallet directly, but she saw the same response.

But with no solutions offered, Hilliker filed a complaint with the Department of Justice. She said the case itself went nowhere, but a screenshot of the complaint “finally got people to take note.”

Both the department and ClassWallet assigned Hilliker a designated staff to call for assistance. But it limited complete access to the site to business hours, “actually one of the hardest times to get anything done when you’re the mother of small children,” Hilliker said.

Hilliker then suggested ClassWallet pay for a subscription for the visual interpreting service Aira. With Aira, Hilliker calls the call center, provides her ClassWallet login information and walks the representative through the website.

“That’s how I use ClassWallet. Every single time. Every time I need to upload a receipt, every time I have to pay a vendor, every time I have to submit a reimbursement, every time I want to check on any transactions, that’s what I do, I call,” Hilliker said.

Rose Daly-Rooney, legal director for the Arizona Center for Disability Law, said the ADA generally requires equal access for any government program, service or activities of state and local governments.

And though not written in the state or federal law, the circuit courts have held the equitable standard applies to government websites.

She said the DOJ, which oversees ADA, does not have specific regulations on how to achieve an ADA accessible website, but last March, it put out guidance and resources to fill in the blanks in the interim.

Daly-Rooney cited Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as a particularly detailed international standard for accessible web content.

She also said that allowing users with disabilities to test websites, developers and companies can catch pitfalls ahead of time.

Daly-Rooney also said, “ADA is about allowing people to do things independently,” and any disparities in how or when a person could access a site or service poses a potential violation.

“That’s not equal access,” Daly-Rooney said.

According to Jamie Rosenberg, CEO and founder of ClassWallet, the site adopted Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 as their accessibility standard and audit access using an IT company and accessiBe, a web accessibility compliance company.

“We take ADA compliance and website accessibility seriously – not just as a one-time exercise – but as our commitment to our clients to ensure we can deliver not just on the letter of our agreement but in its spirit as well,” Rosenberg said in a written statement.

Rosenberg also said ClassWallet looks “forward to responding to the RFP and continuing our partnership with the Arizona Department of Education and Treasury.”

But Hilliker still uses Aira to this day, though she tries to work around it at most junctures given how “slow” and “inefficient” it is.

She also said over each staff changes at ADE, she must “start over again.” She fears the same with a new vendor.

“It is always left to our family to figure that out,” Hilliker said. “Our kids’ funds essentially shutter to a halt when administration changes.”

And she notes the solution has never been a change to the site.

“It’s a Band-Aid, and it’s a Band-Aid that doesn’t stick,” Hilliker said.

The treasurer’s office put out the RFP for a new ESA financial management firm at the end of March. An evaluation committee of employees from the treasurer’s office and ADE are tasked with sifting through bidders. Proposals are due April 28, with plans to award the contract by June.

As the department and the treasurer’s office search for a new vendor, Hilliker hopes for a permanent solution and a truly accessible website.

“As a parent, as a parent of disabled kids, as a working mom, as a homeschool mom, as all these things and all these roles that I have, having to put in the effort to access the program on top of basically managing the program itself,” Hilliker said. “It’s a lot … It just, it really is a lot.”