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Recently there has been much debate about the proposed TEACH Act. As the landscape in higher education has evolved, and most educational opportunities now require use of electronic and information technology, institutions have been left without an effective structure for taking access for all into account. Currently, institutions have only lawsuits and enforcement actions to guide them; the point of the TEACH Act is to pave the way for consistent national guidance. The Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) supports the proposed legislation and seeks to clarify a few points.
It is important to remember that the TEACH Act comes directly from a recommendation made in the Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) Commission Report, and that the AIM Commission was authorized within the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008 and had representation of AHEAD as well as additional representation from both two-year and four-year colleges, advocacy groups, service providers, and publishers.
In addition, it is helpful to take a close look at the TEACH Act language itself, and compare it to the arguments being raised in op-eds such as the recent “Good Intentions, Bad Legislation,” published by Inside Higher Ed. While there are several arguments that were raised within the opinion piece that warrant a closer look, one particular statement claimed: “Rather than simply providing helpful, voluntary guidelines, the TEACH Act would effectively require colleges to only use technologies that meet guidelines created by a federal agency, or risk being sued.”
In reality, voluntary guidelines are precisely what the legislation would authorize the Access Board (the federal agency referenced in the op-ed) to establish. While it is conceivable that a federal agency could choose to adopt those guidelines at some point in the future, this legislation itself is simply outlining a means for guidelines to be established. Guidelines would not require institutions to adopt or not adopt any given technology; they would, however, serve as navigational structures that institutions could use to chart their course.
The bigger point, though, is that colleges and universities are already required to honor the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended in 2008 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), as well as any relevant state or local statutes. This responsibility is already established, but as court case after compliance review after investigation has proved, institutions are struggling to meet the existing obligations. This legislation does not add new responsibilities or any additional burden, undue or otherwise, to educational institutions, but could, by establishing a common baseline for due diligence, help alleviate some of the existing burden.
In addition, having recognized guidelines allows the commercial publishers, software developers, and others who produce for the educational market to create products that will assist their customers in meeting their current obligations under the law. The TEACH Act would not change the existing requirements surrounding the adoption of technology, but it would provide guidance for both the producers and consumers of educational products.
Under both the ADA and Section 504, colleges and universities are required to provide equally effective access to students with disabilities. Currently, campuses struggle to meet this obligation when it comes to technology. We know that the individual accommodation process is not an effective way to ensure equal access in regard to information- and communication technology-related barriers. This legislation expressly allows the individual accommodation process to be utilized where appropriate, and would offer institutions a more effective framework within which to operate to better ensure efficient, proactive accessibility rather than second-class service to some of their students.
Currently, most institutions can only “accommodate” inaccessible technology with patches, workarounds, and other local ad hoc approaches that not only result in unequal and less effective access, but also are unsustainable.
The point of the TEACH Act, we believe, is to end after-the-fact decision-making processes in how to accommodate technology. The point is not to force certain choices upon the institutions but to ensure that the needs of individuals with disabilities are seriously considered and taken into account at the right point in the acquisition process.
The American people long ago concluded that “separate but equal” was inappropriate treatment of a portion of the population in our country; why do we think it is acceptable now? We support consistency in practices with technology across all college and university campuses to ensure all students with disabilities are afforded the same opportunities as other students. Continuing to operate without national guidelines would not ensure equal access.
Bea Awoniyi is president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability and assistant vice president for student affairs at Santa Fe College. Stephan J. Smith is executive director of AHEAD.
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