The issue of accessibility of web-based content is fairly new, given that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 pre-date the internet boom and the growth of innumerable emerging technologies that school districts are rapidly incorporating into their educational programs today. But as more and more schools adopt online learning, as enrollment in virtual schools increases, and as complaints from students with disabilities escalate, it is becomingly increasingly clear that schools need to determine the accessibility of new technologies before their adoption. Accessibility should not be an afterthought.
The Office for Civil Rights of the US Department of Education and the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice are responsible for investigating complaints of disability discrimination. They tackled the question of accessibility of a new technology in a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL), which was addressed to college and university presidents back in June of 2010. The letter was the result of a compliance investigation of colleges and universities that had participated in a classroom trial of an electronic reader that lacked a text-to-speech function, rendering it unusable by students with vision impairments. The OCR and DOJ were clear that the use of the Kindle DX violated both the ADA and Section 504, which state that reasonable accommodations or modifications need to be made “so that a student can acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted students with substantially equivalent ease of use” in the event a device is not readily accessible to students with disabilities.
The scope of the 2010 Dear Colleague letter was expanded with release of a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document published by the OCR and DOJ in May of 2011. According to this FAQ, the question of equal access under ADA and Section 504 is much broader than that of use of a specific electronic reader and includes all areas of online content, such as admission applications, class assignments, course catalogs, and housing forms. And although the original DCL was related to an issue experienced by students in post-secondary education programs, the FAQ made clear that students in primary and secondary education must also receive the same benefits, services, and opportunities afforded by online technology as their non-disabled peers. In addition to students with visual disabilities, the range of qualified students was expanded to include students with specific learning disabilities, such as a print disability, who may have difficulty obtaining written information. Finally, the FAQ made clear that all faculty and staff, not just special education coordinators or disability officers, are responsible for ensuring accessibility of online content.
In March of 2013, the OCR completed a compliance review of the South Carolina Technical College System (SCTCS) and its 16-member colleges and found that its websites were not readily accessible to persons who are blind, have impaired vision, or other reading-related disabilities. According to the Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Seth Galanter, “Schools today rely on websites to register students,distribute course materials, collect homework and administer quizzes. Students with disabilities cannot be denied the same opportunity to access these services on the web 24/7 from anywhere.” Similarly, the OCR and DOJ completed a compliance review in November of the Virtual Community School of Ohio. The review focused not only on many areas of the school’s provision of special education, including identification of students and their receipt of a free and appropriate public education, but also examined the accessibility of the virtual school’s online content. OCR found in instance after instance the school had failed to ensure the accessibility of its website and online learning environments not only to students with disabilities, particularly those with visual impairments, but also to their parents, prospective applicants, and others interested in the school. Specific occurrences of inaccessibility involved the use of images without text equivalents, including regular use of PDF files, which cannot be scanned by screen readers. Additionally, teachers routinely posted course materials and assignments as PDFs and referred students to external websites, which were also equally inaccessible for visually impaired students. Both the Virtual School of Ohio as well as the South Carolina Technical College system have entered into agreements with OCR to rectify the deficiencies found in the compliance reviews.
Both of these compliance reviews underscore the need for careful consideration of accessibility before the adaptation of new technologies. According to the 2011 FAQ, just as schools today would never be built without first considering issues of physical access, even if no physically disabled student is currently enrolled, technologies should not be adapted without first considering issues of accessibility for students with other disabilities. To fail to do so could be denying individuals with disabilities the extraordinary opportunities emerging technology may offer them. The OCR, in the original 2010 Dear Colleague Letter, declared technology to be “the hallmark of the future, and technological competency is essential to preparing all students for future success. Emerging technologies are an educational resource that enhances learning for everyone, and perhaps especially for students with disabilities. Technological innovations have opened a virtual world of commerce, information, and education to many individuals with disabilities for whom access to the physical world remains challenging.”
The FAQ offers guidance on what questions schools should be asking as they evaluate a new technology. First and foremost, schools need to ask if the technology is in a format that is accessible for individuals with disabilities. If it does not and if it cannot be modified, schools must determine if a different device will provide students with disabilities the same educational opportunities and benefits in a timely, equally effective, and equally integrated manner. The FAQ itself provides numerous links to the US Department of Education and other organizations that offer technical assistance and training on how to evaluate accessibility questions.
Kristin Betts states “an institutional commitment to accessibility must become part of the institutional culture with a commitment across all divisions, offices, services, and programs.” In line with the FAQ that states that all faculty and staff are responsible for ensuring accessibility, Ms. Betts argues that the decentralized nature of all courses and programs at the college level, whether online, hybrid/ blended, or on campus, leaves institutions vulnerable to compliance complaints. To this end, Ms. Betts urges the development of policies, guidelines and best practices that become part of the institution’s culture to ensure accessibility to persons with disabilities. Everyone needs to accept responsibility to ensure accessibility. Whereas it takes a village to raise a child, states Ms. Betts, “it takes a campus to graduate a student.” This sentiment extends to all students, certainly not just those in college.