K-12 schools and colleges should build accessibility into their specifications for technology, and they should evaluate whether new hardware and software can be used by all students, including those with disabilities, as part of their ed-tech procurement process, the federal Education Department (ED) said May 26.
That recommendation was part of a “Dear Colleague” letter that ED’s Office for Civil Rights issued to elementary and secondary schools and higher-education institutions, along with a set of frequently asked questions (FAQs) describing the legal obligation schools have to ensure that students with disabilities aren’t left behind in any ed-tech implementation.
The letter expands on a document that ED issued last year, reminding schools and colleges of their responsibility to use accessible eReader devices after more than a year of complaints from sight-impaired students attending colleges that were piloting eReader programs.
Many eReader devices have a text-to-speech function that reads words aloud, but early generations of the devices often lacked menus that sight-impaired students could navigate.
ED’s May 26 letter made it clear that schools’ obligations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act extend beyond eReader devices to include any ed-tech products or services. An accompanying FAQs document gave examples to help school leaders understand how to provide equal access to ed-tech services for students with disabilities.
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“The purpose of the [letter] is to remind everyone that equal access for students with disabilities is the law and must be considered as new technology is integrated into the educational environment,” the document said.
It added: “… All school programs or activities—whether in a ‘brick and mortar,’ online, or other ‘virtual’ context—must be operated in a manner that complies with federal disability discrimination laws.”
When evaluating new ed-tech products and services, the document said, school leaders should ask the following questions: