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.
Amid great anticipation, Apple last week rolled out its latest products. All the fanfare and breathless media coverage serves to underscore the excitement innovative technologies generate across our society. This is especially true for higher education. Few other industries integrate technology so thoroughly into their work.
That is why higher education leaders are so concerned about legislation that would take decision-making about the use of technology to support learning out of the hands of campuses and turn it over to an obscure federal agency.
The TEACH (Technology, Equality and Accessibility in College and Higher Education) Act comes from the best of intentions. Its sponsors hope to improve how campuses meet the needs of students with disabilities, and to help give guidance to institutions struggling to reconcile their responsibilities to those students with the relentless pace of technological innovation. These are goals campuses strongly support.
As is so often the case in Washington, though, the devil is in the details. Our organizations, along with 19 other higher education groups representing nearly every American college and university, have serious concerns about what the TEACH Act would mean for higher education’s ability to use technology to advance learning.
In short, the legislation would actually prevent us from using new technology to better serve our students, including students with disabilities.
We shared these concerns with the advocacy group that favors this legislation, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), over a year and a half ago. Some supporters of the bill have wrongly implied that our opposition stems from something other than a desire for the best policy outcome for all students, including those with disabilities. This is not true. Nor do such assertions help students, or advance good policy.
Let us be very clear: we believe the federal government can play a valuable role in improving accessibility without inhibiting the use of technology to improve learning for all students. But that is not what the TEACH Act would do.
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.
This agency (the Access Board) has never directly addressed higher education technology issues before, and how it would tackle the incredible diversity of digital instructional materials and related technologies that campuses employ (everything from e-text books to dynamic weather simulators) is far from clear.
The key problem with this approach is that while technological innovations are being made every day, federal agencies do not move nearly that fast. The TEACH Act would require the federal guidelines to be updated every three years — a very long time in the technology world — and that’s the best-case scenario.
The reality is that the Access Board’s pace is far slower. The agency’s current technology guidelines for the federal government were last promulgated in 2000; it has been in the process of trying to “refresh” those guidelines for close to a decade.
What’s more, the TEACH Act would deny colleges and universities the flexibility provided in current law to meet students’ needs when full technological solutions are not yet available.
The bill would apply a new, extremely rigid standard for accessibility exclusively to colleges and universities that is distinct from the standard the nation as a whole, including the federal government, has long followed. Such an inflexible approach would limit, not enhance, our ability to serve persons with disabilities.
With this in mind, could the process proposed in the TEACH Act even work? Or, as is more likely, would colleges and universities find themselves restricted to using technology that is years (or decades) behind the times, with no flexibility to adapt and better serve their students, including those with disabilities?
The bottom line: the bill as currently drafted would unambiguously inhibit the development and adoption of new learning technologies that would directly benefit students.
Colleges and universities lead the way in designing and developing accessible technologies, filling a vital gap where the private sector — including many publishers of textbooks and learning materials — has been largely unresponsive.
It is hard to imagine the impact on learning if colleges and universities are forced to wait years for the federal government to catch up with technology.
We take our responsibilities to our students seriously, and part of that commitment is keeping pace with technology. Doing so can pose challenges for campuses trying to balance the possible benefits of emerging technologies with our responsibilities to our students.
But freezing the development and implementation of new learning technologies, as the TEACH Act would do, has serious consequences. Rather than helping students with disabilities, putting such a policy into law would ensure that all students are left behind as technology advances. We remain committed to finding an approach that will truly improve learning for everyone, and we hope others will join us.
Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president of government and public affairs of the American Council on Education. Jarret S. Cummings is director of policy and external relations of EDUCAUSE.