Commentary

A New Obstacle for Students With Disabilities

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

September 12, 2014

It is well documented that students with disabilities are facing barriers in their pursuit of higher education, and institutions are having a difficult time fulfilling their legal obligation to ensure equal access. So it was surprising last month when the American Council on Education, in a letter to Sen. Tom Harkin about the proposed reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, completely dismissed a provision that would make it easier for its member institutions to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

The provision, Sec. 931 of the draft document, calls for guidelines to ensure that students with disabilities have access to "electronic instructional materials and related information technologies" that are "consistent with national and international standards." Colleges that do not use materials that conform to the guidelines may opt out by showing that they offer students with disabilities access to instructional and technological materials that are equivalent to those used by nondisabled students, a standard the institutions should already be meeting.

Yet, according to the American Council on Education in its letter, this provision "creates an impossible to meet standard for institutions and will result in a significant chilling effect in the usage of new technology." It would "seriously impede the development and adoption of accessible materials, harming the very students it is intended to assist."

That statement indicates either a profound lack of understanding about what the provision actually does, a total lack of awareness that the majority of their member institutions are failing to meet existing legal obligations, or an insulting lack of interest in finding a solution for students with disabilities.

Most people assume technology expands opportunities for students with disabilities. While the potential exists, it can be realized only if technology is designed and coded with equal access in mind. Despite years of public-awareness campaigns, legal challenges, and advocacy efforts, many commonly used technologies built or purchased by colleges—email systems, learning-management systems, library databases, classroom materials—actually do more to prevent students with disabilities from equal participation than paper-based systems ever did.

And partial solutions, like coding written material so a blind student can read the text cover to cover, are no longer equivalent. Being able to highlight, take notes, skip around, and integrate external content are essential functions of today’s digital instructional materials; thus, blind students are denied equal access by the very technology that could have ensured their full participation.

Federal laws mandating equal access in the classroom for students with disabilities were written long before digital technologies were integral to the educational experience, but their meaning has not changed. Four years ago, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education clarified the expectations for institutions of higher learning by stating that requiring the use of "an emerging technology in a classroom environment when the technology is inaccessible to an entire population of individuals with disabilities—individuals with visual disabilities—is discrimination … unless those individuals are provided accommodations or modifications that permit them to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner."

Since that guidance was issued, countless universities have upgraded or rebuilt core technology systems, but few have done so with consideration for this accessibility requirement. What lost opportunities! And those that attempt to wedge the paper-based accommodation model into today’s digital ecosystem are simply leaving disabled students in the dust.

Because of this growing chasm of access, legal disputes and civil-rights complaints have occurred with increasing frequency. Most of these disputes end in agreements where colleges commit to honoring their existing legal requirements to make accessible all technologies they deploy, procure, or recommend. Predictably, language from the aforementioned guidance appears in almost all of these settlements, including the most recent one between the Department of Education and the University of Montana. That agreement, in March, states that materials are considered accessible when "individuals with disabilities are able to independently acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services within the same time frame as individuals without disabilities, with substantially equivalent ease of use."

In 2008 Congress authorized the Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials to examine barriers caused by inaccessible technology and to recommend solutions. The commission’s No. 1 recommendation was to create guidelines that would stimulate the market for accessible materials.

This noncontroversial, common-sense and data-driven solution is the basis for a bipartisan bill pending in both the House and Senate called the Teach (Technology Equality and Accessibility in College and Higher Education) Act. The act served as the model for Senator Harkin’s provision on accessible instructional material in the Reauthorization Act—the provision that ACE rejected.

With all of these problems and all of these promises, I assumed ACE would welcome the Teach Act or any provision that results in a similar solution. Instead, the organization says voluntary accessibility guidelines will create "an impossible to meet standard." Is ACE just confused?

The Teach Act and the proposed language to which ACE has objected merely call for voluntary guidelines for accessibility. If colleges opt in, they would ensure access via the market of accessible materials and assuage any legal concerns about complying with accessibility requirements. If they opt out, they would be free to use their own methods, but they would still be subject to the same requirement for ensuring equal access that they are today. Why would this be "impossible"? Or does ACE assert that its member institutions are resolving disputes by agreeing to legal standards that they cannot meet?

I also challenge ACE to prove its assertion that guidelines would chill the development of new technology. Have building designs ceased to evolve and architects ceased to innovate since guidelines for accessibility—think curb cuts, ramps, and elevators—were mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act almost 25 years ago? Of course not. Scare tactics are not a valid reason to deny inclusivity.

Finally, ACE has demonstrated little desire to engage on the issue of expanding access. It has been almost a year since the four-page Teach Act was introduced in the House, yet this empty statement objecting to Senator Harkin’s provision is the group’s first and only public statement on accessible instructional materials.

As a blind student and professional in higher-education technology and an advocate for the disability community, I think we deserve a productive dialogue—not stall tactics and unsubstantiated claims about ensuring access for students with disabilities.

Kyle Shachmut is president of the National Federation of the Blind of Massachusetts, a doctoral student in educational media and technology at Boston University, and a technology consultant for the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.