Even online classes must be able to accommodate students with disabilities, ED's document says.

 

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:

• What educational opportunities and benefits will your school provide through the use of the technology?

• How will the technology help you provide these opportunities and benefits?

• Does the technology exist in a format that is accessible to individuals with disabilities?

• If the technology is not accessible, can it be modified, or is there a different technological device available, so that students with disabilities can enjoy the same educational opportunities and benefits in a timely, equally effective, and equally integrated manner?

For example, the document says, suppose your school intends to establish a web-based eMail system so that students can communicate with each other and with their instructors, receive important messages from the school, and communicate with others outside of school. You must make sure that these same benefits and opportunities exist for students with disabilities “in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.”

Before deciding what system to buy, you should find out whether the system is accessible to students who are blind or have low vision—that is, whether the system is compatible with screen readers and whether it gives users the option of using large fonts. If a system isn’t accessible as designed, you must figure out whether another, accessible product is available—or whether the inaccessible product can be modified so it’s accessible to students who are blind or have low vision.

Schools don’t necessarily have to provide the same type of emerging technology to students with disabilities as they give to other students, as long as the disabled students can enjoy the same educational benefits as the other students, the document said.

For instance, say you purchase eReader devices for your school library, but you then realize the devices can’t accommodate students with disabilities. You can find and supply a different type of device for students with disabilities, as long as they derive the same benefits from using this alternative device.

“Technology can be a critical investment in enhancing educational opportunities for all students,” said Russlynn Ali, ED’s assistant secretary for civil rights. “The department is firmly committed to ensuring that schools provide students with disabilities equal access to the benefits of technological advances.”

More news about technology and accessibility:

Online law school applications to be accessible for the blind

Claim: Google Apps for Education inaccessible to blind students

Conference: Technology is helping to ‘redefine … disability’

Five key trends in assistive technology

Free text reader to help print-disabled students