For Bill on Disabled Access to Online Teaching Materials, the Devil’s in the Details

As smart classrooms become the norm on more campuses and online courses proliferate, some observers worry that the digital revolution will leave students with disabilities behind. But a bill under consideration in the U.S. Congress, the Technology, Equality, and Accessibility in College and Higher Education Act (HR 3505), would deal with that concern by creating accessibility guidelines for electronic materials used or assigned by college professors and administrators.

While the bill, known as the Teach Act, has bipartisan support in Congress, several higher-education organizations have raised concerns about what they consider the legislation’s broad language, inflexibility, and misplaced oversight. For example, the American Council on Education objects to the bill in part because it grants authority to create guidelines to the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, which the council says lacks higher-education expertise.

“This provision creates an impossible-to-meet standard for institutions and will result in a significant chilling effect in the usage of new technology,” wrote Molly Corbett Broad, ACE’s president, in a letter last month to Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who is chairman of the education committee. The letter was sent on behalf of the council and 19 other higher-education groups. “Such a proposal, if implemented, will seriously impede the development and adoption of accessible materials, harming the very students it is intended to assist.”

Rep. Thomas E. Petri, a Wisconsin Republican, introduced the Teach Act in the House of Representatives in November 2013, and Sen. Elizabeth A. Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced an identical bill in the Senate in February 2014. This past summer, Senator Harkin included it in his discussion draft for the reauthorization to the Higher Education Act.

“Congressman Petri believes that if there is a way to have these educational materials accessible to students who are disabled, they should have them,” said Lee Brooks, Representative Petri’s communications director.

The National Federation of the Blind and the Association of American Publishers are proponents of the measure, which would allow colleges to opt out of the guidelines if they already provide materials that serve students with disabilities “in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.”

“Every day, blind college students face frustration and despair in the pursuit of their education because of inaccessible technology,” Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said in a written statement in February. “E-readers, web content, mobile applications, and learning management systems are integral to the 21st-century college experience, and students with disabilities are being needlessly left behind. … Schools and manufacturers must embrace readily available accessibility solutions so that all students can benefit from educational technology, and the guidelines established by the Teach Act will make it clear how manufacturers and institutions of higher education can best serve students with disabilities.”

In a letter published this month in The Chronicle, Terry W. Hartle, ACE’s senior vice president for government and public affairs, rejected the assertion that the Teach Act is the best way to protect students with disabilities.

“The bottom line is that the bill as written would damage the quality of learning for all students, and it would freeze the development and implementation of new learning technologies to benefit our students, including students with disabilities,” he wrote.

Officials at the associations declined requests for further comment.

Ron Zwerin, director of marketing for Educause, a higher-education-technology group that has opposed the Teach Act, said the proposed law would limit technology development. “For example, in a college chemistry course, the information a sighted student might get from an interactive 3D simulation of a chemical compound might be made available to a blind student through the use of physical models,” he said by email. “This reasonable accommodation would not be allowed under Teach, and thus institutions most likely would not be able to use such simulations, even if they might be made accessible to some but not all students with disabilities.”

Tracy Mitrano, director of Internet culture, policy, and law at Cornell University, plans to discuss the bill during a panel this week at the annual conference of Educause.

“I understand completely why the associations have been reluctant about the specifics of the Teach Act as an approach, but I think the conversation around all this is an opportunity to come out on top of it,” she said. “The question that remains for ACE or Educause or any other higher-education institution is, Are you satisfied with simply rejecting this approach and saying nothing else?”

Ms. Mitrano believes a solution already exists: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, developed by the World Wide Web Consortium. But any well-thought-out, codified standard would benefit universities and students with disabilities, she said.

“It would make compliance relatively easy,” she said. “There would be no more need to debate what the standards are.”

Isabella Moreno, associate director of the office of disability services at Oberlin College, agrees. “Having federal guidelines would be extremely helpful,” she said. “We are always most interested in ensuring we are giving our students the absolute best. That doesn’t always mean that we know what is available. Despite our efforts to try to stay on top, there’s always new technologies that would assist our students.”

Compliance has been an issue at several colleges. Most recently, in July 2013, the Department of Justice announced a settlement with Louisiana Tech University regarding a complaint that a digital product was inaccessible to a blind student.

Federal guidelines would help colleges avoid litigation and help publishers produce the materials students need, according to Allan Adler, general counsel and vice president for government affairs at the Association of American Publishers.

“The legislation sets up a safe harbor for institutions of higher education and, at the same time, approaches the work of the manufacturers of materials with some amount of flexibility,” he said.

Federal guidelines would prove especially useful for helping disability-services offices justify their budget requests, Ms. Moreno predicted.

“Whenever we go up for budget reasons, we could say, ‘We need this, the federal guidelines say we should have this or something similar,’” she said. “It allows us to justify different acquisitions within the college.”

With midterm elections in November and the end of the current Congressional session around the corner, no action on the legislation seems imminent, Mr. Brooks said, but he is optimistic about the bill’s ultimate prospects, especially because it has 52 cosponsors, from both sides of the aisle. Mr. Brooks said Representative Petri’s office had met with the American Council on Education, and since the congressman is retiring, he will pass suggestions to whoever introduces the bill during the next Congress.

“The standards we’re trying to put in place are not impossible standards,” Mr. Brooks said. “We’re willing to work with the groups to make sure we come to a mutually beneficial outcome that would solve the problem.”

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