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Department of Ed Expands on Accessibility Issues in Ed Tech

To follow up on a 2010 reminder to colleges, universities, and K-12 school districts that their instructional technology adhere to accessibility laws, the United States Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has issued a new frequently-asked questions document to address ongoing concerns regarding compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That initial June 2010 letter, issued as "dear colleague" guidance, explained that devices used for educational purposes must be accessible to students with disabilities, unless the benefits of the technology are provided equally through other means. It was sent out after the U.S. Justice Department settled complaints with a number of institutions that were running pilot programs involving the Amazon Kindle book reader, which, at that time, wasn't fully accessible by students who were blind or had low vision. Those device limitations have since been addressed by Amazon.

"We made it clear at that time that when institutions chose to provide such technology, they needed to do so in a way that ensured that students with disabilities could enjoy, use, benefit from those devices in a way that all students could," explained Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education. "That got a lot of attention. Since then we've heard of other concerns that we didn't address. And we wanted to issue this document to provide as much help as we could to institutions that were working to comply with the requirements of Section 504."

A major emphasis of the latest Ed guidance is to remind K-12 schools and school districts that the requirements in the June 2010 letter apply to them as well. "There was some confusion in the field we had heard that folks thought it had only applied to higher ed," Ali noted.

Since the initial settlement was announced by the Department of Justice, additional complaints have surfaced, including four that are still open--three in higher ed and one in K-12. Ali said her department has dealt with 28 such cases since 2008.

The FAQ provides further explanation regarding the scope of the principles laid out in the Dear Colleague letter. For example, the document emphasizes that the compliance doesn't simply involve ebook readers; it also applies to delivery of online courses and any other school programs or activities, whether brick and mortar or virtual.

The FAQ also offers a brief list of questions schools should consider when evaluating the use of technology, encouraging them to include accessibility requirements as part of standard evaluation process. It also provides practical advice for determining whether a given accommodation or modification will be equal to the benefits delivered otherwise through the use of a specific technology.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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