On November 15, U.S. Representative Tom Petri (R-WI), a senior member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, introduced legislation to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to the benefits of electronic instructional materials used in today’s colleges and universities.
“Colleges and universities across the country are using a wide array of new technologies and instructional materials in the classroom,” said Petri. “This is a positive development. But at the same time, these new and innovative tools can also pose a challenge for accessibility. We have an obligation to ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to obtain a quality education.”
The bill—H.R. 3505, the Technology, Equality, and Accessibility in College and Higher Education (TEACH) Act—would require that any instructional technology, such as digital content, tablets, online platforms, interactive computer software, etc., used by a postsecondary school either be accessible to students with disabilities or that the school provide accommodations or modifications so that the ease-of-use and benefits of the technology for students with disabilities is on par with other students.
These requirements are consistent with joint guidance issued in 2010 by the Departments of Education and Justice regarding the use of new technologies in the classroom and the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The guidance was issued in response to the use of electronic book readers by some colleges and universities that were not fully accessible to visually impaired students.
“For decades, schools have been required to provide equal access to all students,” said Petri. “What this bill would do is ensure that students with disabilities are given equal treatment now and in the future as new, innovative technologies are developed and used more often in the classroom.”
To help schools meet these requirements, the TEACH Act directs the Access Board, an independent federal agency, to develop guidelines for electronic instructional materials used by institutions of higher education. Schools would not be limited to using materials or technologies that are consistent with the guidelines, but those materials that do conform to the guidelines would automatically be considered to be accessible under the law.
“Every day, blind college students face devastating setbacks to their education because of inaccessible technology,” said Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). “The use of e-readers, Web content, mobile applications, and learning management systems by educators is more prevalent than ever, and disabled students are being needlessly left behind. No student can be expected to succeed in college if he or she is denied access to critical course material. Schools and manufacturers must embrace readily available accessibility solutions so that all students can benefit from educational technology, and the guidelines established by the TEACH Act will make it clear how manufacturers and institutions of higher education can best serve disabled students. These guidelines are long overdue, and we applaud Congressman Petri for introducing this critical bill.”
“The TEACH Act supports a core mission of the Association of American Publishers: to ensure that all students have equal access to high-quality digital educational content and technologies,” said Tom Allen, President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers (AAP). “As higher education publishers’ innovations keep improving how students learn and as institutions seek to serve their diverse student communities, the TEACH Act will provide the clarifying guidelines and incentives to foster greater commercial availability of accessible educational content, platforms and delivery systems. We are proud to have collaborated with Congressman Petri’s office and the NFB to put forward this legislation which will help make state-of-the-art learning materials accessible to all students pursuing higher education.”
Congressman Petri advocated for the inclusion of a provision included in the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act that created the Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities, otherwise known as the AIM Commission. One of the commission’s recommendations was that the Access Board be directed by Congress to develop guidelines to help guide the development of accessible instructional materials in the marketplace.
Petri also successfully included a provision in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to ensure specialized textbooks and other learning materials are available to sight-impaired students.
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