4 Questions You Must Ask About Disability Access to Technology

By Lakeisha Marvel, M.P.A., Disability Services Administrator

CTU Accessibility to technology for those with disabilitiesWe often hear people rave about how wonderful ‘emerging technology’ is. And, we are led to believe that the more improved the technology, the better. Well that depends on who you ask. 

In my daily work serving students with disabilities, I hear the other side of the story. Advances in technology can present challenges for the visually impaired.

Advanced Technology Can Put Others at a Disadvantage
In June 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) issued a joint “Dear Colleague” letter expressing concerns that colleges and universities are using electronic book readers that are not accessible to students who are blind or have low vision. The letter explained that technological devices must be accessible to students with disabilities, including students who are blind or have low vision, and replicate the typical classroom experience for students with disabilities. Ensuring equal access to emerging technology in university and college classrooms is a means to the goal of full integration and equal educational opportunity for students with disabilities.

Even if your institution does not require the use of electronic book readers, such as Kindles® or iPads®, you must also consider that all school operations are subject to the nondiscrimination requirements defined by the American Disabilities Act (ADA). Therefore, all school programs or activities, whether taking place in a physical environment or virtually, must be operated in a manner that complies with federal disability discrimination laws.

In May 2011, the DoE’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued guidance through dear colleague letters along with a frequently asked questions document on the legal obligation to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from new technology. The frequently asked questions provide helpful information and an example of what questions a school should ask in determining whether emerging technology is accessible, or can be made accessible, to students with disabilities.

Steps to Ensure Everyone Benefits
Schools should begin by considering accessibility issues when they are deciding whether to create or acquire emerging technology, and when they are planning how the technology will be used. To that end, schools should include accessibility requirements and analyses as part of their acquisition procedures. Schools should keep in mind their obligation to ensure that students with disabilities receive the benefits of the educational program in an equally effective and equally integrated manner. Among the questions a school should ask are:

  • What educational opportunities and benefits does the school provide through the use of the technology?
  • How will the technology 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 obtain the educational opportunities and benefits in a timely, equally effective and equally integrated manner?

Here’s an example: A school intends to establish a Web mail system so students can: communicate with each other and with faculty and staff; receive important messages from the school (e.g., a message about a health or safety concern); and communicate with individuals outside the school. The school must ensure the educational benefits, services and opportunities provided to students through a Web mail system are provided in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.

Before deciding what system to purchase, the school should make an initial inquiry into whether the system is accessible to students who are blind or have low vision, e.g., whether the system is compatible with screen readers and whether it gives users the option of using large fonts. If a system is not accessible as designed, the school must take further action to determine whether an accessible product is available, or whether the inaccessible product can be modified so that it is accessible to students who are blind or have low vision.

It’s a challenging, but worthwhile endeavor to think about all the types of students impacted by the tools available for their education. Don’t leave out developing technology for those with disabilities as much as for those without.

CTU Staff - Lakeisha MarvelLakeisha Marvel, M.P.A., is the disability services administrator for Colorado Technical University, ensuring that students with disabilities receive equal access to curricular and co-curricular opportunities in the academic community. She earned her Masters of Public Administration from Governors State University.

Image credit: Flickr/Mr. T in DC