Disability rights advocates and book publishers are pushing for federal regulations to ensure higher education technology is accessible to tens of thousands of students with visual impairments.
A federal study in 2011 found college students with a range of disabilities face "unintended and nearly impenetrable barriers" thrown up by some new technology products. Now, the National Federation of the Blind is floating a draft bill designed to ensure students with disabilities are not left behind on college campuses by a wave of new technologies. The proposal has the support of other disability rights groups and the Association of American Publishers.
About 2.1 million American students have some kind of disability, including about 63,000 with visual impairments, according to the 2011 report on the accessibility and inaccessibility of instructional material.
"It is critically important that blind students have access to the technology that is being used in the educational environment today at all levels, and this includes e-books and clickers and other technologies," said Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind.
The Department of Education and the Department of Justice told college presidents three years ago that inaccessible education technology violates the Americans With Disabilities Act. But the letter didn’t set a national standard for what is accessible and what is not, said Lauren McLarney, a government affairs staffer at the federation of the blind.
In the absence of a standard, disability rights advocates have fought a series of legal skirmishes to try to ensure colleges aren’t abandoning disabled students. The cases have usually been decided or settled in favor of the disabled students lodging complaints, according to the Association of Research Libraries. Last month, for instance, advocates won a major victory when the University of California at Berkeley agreed to do more to make homework and research material accessible to students with visual and learning disabilities.
“The need for a clear standard, a clear obligation around producing accessible text is important,” said L. Scott Lissner, president of the national Association on Higher Education and Disability and ADA coordinator at Ohio State University. His organization has endorsed the draft bill.
At the same time, without a national standard, some tech companies have failed to make their products accessible, according to both the federal government and disability rights advocates. Amazon, in particular, has been criticized for its Kindle e-books and e-book readers, which advocates for the blind say are inconvenient for blind users, though Amazon recently made some changes to its software for Apple products that won praise.
About a dozen other disability rights groups have said they will support the federation of the blind's draft bill, which is known as the Technology, Equality and Accessibility in College and Higher Education Act, or TEACH Act.
The bill would require the federal Access Board, an independent agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities, to come up with national standards for accessible higher education technology products and then require the Department of Justice to enforce the standards.
McLarney said the federal government’s role would be to dictate standards to both the companies that produce educational materials and the colleges that require their use.
“Here we have an independent entity saying here’s what’s accessible, so, here, both of you follow this,” she said.
The proposal's fate is unclear. McLarney hopes to get a bill introduced by early July and suggested it could end up becoming part of a pending refresh of the nation's higher education laws. The federation is searching for sponsors in the House and Senate. Supporters have approached Representative Tom Petri, Republican of Wisconsin, in an effort to get him to sponsor the bill. His office is still exploring the issue, a spokesman said this week.
McLarney said it is now time to pass the law. Over the years, she said, technology companies have argued they could innovate and provide accessibility on their own.
“We’re just not seeing it happening,” she said.
In the meantime, technology, including higher ed tech, is rapidly changing. Some new companies, including the providers of massive open online courses, have inserted ADA compliance language into their agreements with universities. Coursera, for instance, has extensive language about how it and its university partners are supposed to deal with students. EdX includes "accessibility" in a small section requiring it and its university partners to comply with existing laws. Udacity delegates responsibility for ADA compliance in a recent agreement with the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Lissner said new federal standards would be good for universities on a practical level to help them make educational material accessible to disabled students.
“On a purely pragmatic level, it informs universities and colleges whether or not what they are doing to provide texts to their students meets their basic needs without waiting for a complaint process to solve that problem,” he said.
Lissner is also keeping an eye on the Authors Guild v. HathiTrust, a federal court dispute between authors and HathiTrust, a database of digital books. The authors claim the database, which can be used to make digital copies of books available to disabled students, among other things, would reduce book sales. HathiTrust trust won the first round of the case in federal district court but the guild appealed the decision. The Association on Higher Education and Disability filed a friend of the court brief to argue an appeals court should not do anything to harm disabled students’ access to educational materials.