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Federal Commission Recommends Sending Faculty to Accessibility School

The federal AIM Commission this week posted recommendations for improving accessibility in higher education, among them the recommendation for mandatory, system-wide faculty orientation programs concerning accessibility "in all aspects of the education enterprise, including readings, courseware and instructional technology, assessments and instructor-made materials."

The Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities--known more colloquially as the AIM Commission--was established for the purpose of making recommendations to Congress and the United States Secretary of Education for improving the state of accessible educational resources for students with disabilities, to improve the effective use of those resources, to identify best practices in the use of accessible materials, and to support model demonstration programs. The commission's membership includes academic, corporate, non-profit, and government leaders.

Following a 14-month review of the state of accessibility in higher education, the group issued several findings on the shortcomings of accessibility in education in its final report, along with 18 recommendations for overcoming some of those problems. Those recommendations fell into five broad areas: policy and the law, market, technology, capacity-building, and discretionary investments in demonstration projects.

Education Technology: Metadata, Federation, Wizards, Incentives
Technology played a major role in the report, with nearly all of the recommendations touching on some aspect of technology's growing influence in post-secondary education, either as a barrier to accessibility or as a provider of opportunities for improvement.

Among the technology-centered recommendations, the commission recommended against adopting any single standard for file format and against creating any national repository of resources for those with print disabilities.

The commission did, however, make recommendations for software producers, textbook publishers, and institutions for making accessible materials more readily identifiable. Those included:

  • Federated search technology to allow students and campuses to locate learning materials, fueled by a common set of metadata and a willingness on the part of suppliers to make their accessible materials visible to search engines;
  • The inclusion of accessibility-related metadata in learning materials; and
  • Accessibility support in authoring tools, such as accessibility wizards and validation utilities.

The commission also recommended legislation to address "shortcomings" in the accessibility of instructional materials and incentives for producers of learning materials to deliver resources accessible to students with print disabilities.

Capacity-Building: Faculty Orientations, Faculty Materials
The report also focused to no small degree on recommendations aimed at increasing capacity for accessible learning materials at the campus level, linking some recommendations with federal funding.

"Federally sponsored or competed projects, including grants, cooperative agreements and contracts that involve the design, development and/or creation of materials that could be used for postsecondary instruction need to support accessibility," the report recommended. "The Commission strongly encourages postsecondary institutions to reference and utilize Section 508 procurement and purchasing guidelines in their digital product development descriptions and in their applications for Federal funding."

The authors also recommended the adoption of tools that provide accessibility and training of personnel, including faculty and administrators, to make use of those tools: "Higher education institutions, consistent with the requirements of the ADA and Section 504, should purchase authoring tools for use by faculty, staff and students in working with accessible digital publications. In addition, every postsecondary institution should offer a mandatory system-wide orientation for faculty, staff, teaching assistants and administrators concerning strategies for ensuring accessibility in all aspects of the education enterprise, including readings, courseware and instructional technology, assessments and instructor-made materials. Consideration should be given to establishing institutional benchmarks for proficiency in disability awareness and responsiveness to the need for AIM."

Related to this, the commission also recommended that all instructional materials used in post-secondary education that incorporate audio and video--including materials produced by faculty members--provide closed captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Consideration was also given to providing federal funding for open source tools and learning materials in order to make available resources that would could be shared between institutions--resources that might, on an individual basis, be prohibitive to produce, such as tactile graphics and embossed and digital Braille.

The complete text of the final commission document, "Report of the Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities," is freely available on the ed.gov site in Microsoft Word format.

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