It’s Time to Make Education Accessible for Everyone

It’s Time to Make Education Accessible for Everyone

Posted by Andrew Kirkpatrick, Group Product Manager for Standards & Accessibility

Computer technology has fundamentally changed the way we learn and has both made it easier and presents new challenges for students with disabilities to obtain the same quality education as their peers. Accessible documents and online videos with closed captioning have moved us closer to the promise of full access for people with disabilities, but we still have a long way to go. To help achieve this promise, policymakers are playing a critical role in helping students with disabilities gain greater access to the same tools and services as their classmates.

Earlier this month, Reps. Phil Roe (R-TN) and Joe Courtney (D-CT) introduced the Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education (AIM-HE) Act to ensure that students with disabilities have access to the same education as everyone else. The bill will establish an independent commission to develop voluntary guidelines for creating and integrating accessible electronic instructional materials and technologies in classrooms across the country.

While technology has made it easier for individuals with disabilities to access course materials, many still face challenges because faculty and administrators are not aware of their responsibilities to students. Many colleges and universities do not consistently require that instructors provide accessible course materials for students with disabilities. As more student resources are shared digitally, professors and administrators must ensure that all students have access to them. AIM-HE promises to deliver on this need.

Adobe commends Reps. Roe and Courtney for recognizing this important issue and taking a nuanced approach to develop voluntary guidelines for institutions to use  to meet their obligations under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and titles II and III of the ADA. To encourage use of these guidelines, the law will identify a “safe harbor” for products and services rather than rigidly defining rules. AIM-HE will give postsecondary institutions and vendors supplying institutions of higher education guidance to help them meet their legal obligations and bring accessible instructional materials to students.

As currently outlined in the bill, commission members will be appointed by the Speaker of the House and the Minority Leader. Adobe encourages the Speaker and the Minority Leader to appoint developers and manufacturers of electronic instruction materials to the commission to ensure that diverse backgrounds and skills are represented. A well-rounded commission will be better able to develop recommendations that consider unique technology advances and student needs.

An additional change that will significantly impact public colleges and universities is the pending update to Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which pertains to the accessibility of state and local services, including websites operated by public school systems and universities.  In collaboration with the Software & Information Industry Association, Adobe recently submitted comments to the Department of Justice in response to their Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding the establishment of standards for accessibility in state and local government services.

At the core of Adobe’s recommendations is the adoption of consistent accessibility standards set forth by W3C in its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. The regulations set forth in the Title II update are critical to the continued promotion of accessibility guidelines in other sectors because once changes have been made to Title II, DOJ will shift its focus to Title III, which pertains to accessibility regulations in the private sector. Title III provisions will likely reflect those made during Title II negotiations, and any omissions can have dramatic effects on subsequent policy. A strong precedent must be established so consistent standards are adopted.

Adobe and SIIA also advised the DOJ not to move too quickly in requiring institutions to comply with new rules. State and local institutions need time and resources to adopt new standards. Website managers, IT departments, and administrators must evaluate user conditions, update existing platforms and websites, and convert materials to meet accessibility criteria. It is easy to underestimate the effort in conforming to accessibility guidelines, particularly at scale, but we must provide public institutions time to meet compliance standards in order for the effort to be successful.

Adobe believes that all people should be able to take advantage of digital technology, regardless of ability, and we make it a priority to encourage developers to produce rich, engaging content that is also universally accessible. Through accessibility features, Adobe products empower students to pursue their educational goals.  Thankfully, policymakers like Reps. Roe and Courtney are also making accessibility a priority and are taking important steps to improve access to education materials for students with disabilities, moving us one step closer to the promise of full access for all.

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