Educational publishers face additional responsibility for digital accessibility.
GUEST COLUMN | by Raymond Rose and Mary Rice
Online and digital learning tools and instruction should be accessible. Defining accessibility from the perspective of legal and policy perspectives has required clarification to the definition over time from government entities. Academic institutions at all levels in the U.S. have been required to provide accessibility as physical access to buildings and the removal of barriers to enrollment and attendance under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 of that act mandated that educational institutions receiving federal funding should provide equal opportunities to individuals with disabilities. Section 504 was applied to both K-12 and post-secondary academic institutions. However, the digital elements of accessibility were not considered in 1973 because digital resources were not part of mainstream education.
Requirements That Schools Must Meet
In 2010, the US Department of Education (USDOE) sent a Dear Colleague letter to provide clarification and inform all academic institutions that requirements for accessibility in Section 504 included digital resources and online instruction. The letter defined accessibility as: those with a disability are able to acquire the same information and engage in the same interactions – and within the same time frame – as those without disabilities.
‘…those with a disability are able to acquire the same information and engage in the same interactions – and within the same time frame – as those without disabilities.’
Currently, USDOE is revising the Section 504 regulations, which may be released as a draft for comment in 2023. The new regulations are expected to maintain the definition from the 2010 letter, which is commonly used in current Office of Civil Rights compliance cases.
Per the forthcoming new regulations, academic institutions at all levels may be obligated to review digital educational materials for accessibility. That means educational leaders with purchasing power should avoid acquiring any products that are not fully accessible under USDOE’s operational definition of accessibility. While Section 504 does not now and is not expected to be expanded to apply to publishers and vendors, it is important for the developers of digital educational materials and tools to understand the requirements that schools must meet to use their products.
Publishers and Vendors Following Up
Educational publishers and vendors should follow the progress of Senator Tammy Duckworth’s Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act, which would require that websites be accessible to people with disabilities. The final language could apply to digital educational materials.
Some states are making it more difficult for schools to purchase inaccessible materials. For example, Illinois passed HB 26 in 2021, requiring all public schools in the state to review third-party curriculum materials to ensure accessibility. That legislation specifies the WCAG 2.0 AA (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) as the standard for review.
Academic institutions might also ask vendors for VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template) in addition to WCAG 2.0 AA compliance information during the review process. When a vendor does not have their VPAT to share, this may be an indication that the vendor has not paid appropriate attention to digital accessibility. It seems an obvious risk to purchase the product.
However, purchasers of digital instructional materials should also not accept their VPAT as a sole source of evidence of accessibility. Research has shown that VPATs completed by marketing department can be less accurate than those completed by engineering departments.
Challenges in Ensuring Accessibility
Higher education seemingly made faster advances than K-12 schools regarding accessibility product evaluation. This may be because higher educational institutions are more likely to have full-time individuals employed with responsibilities for ensuring that products purchased are fully accessible. In K-12 settings, the roles of technology coordinator, purchasing administrator, and special education expert are likely to be different individuals within and between schools, districts. The professionals in these roles are often unable to properly coordinate on issues of accessibility for digital instruction.
Due to these dispersed roles, it may also be more difficult for K-12 schools, even in the same geographic area, to share information about what digital educational materials are highly accessible and which are less so. Thus, intentional collaboration within and across the K-12 apparatus seems to be a priority for enacting expected new guidance.
Becoming Better Informed
With increased focus on digital accessibility and forthcoming new regulations for Section 504, the K-12 sector must become better informed about digital accessibility and how to evaluate digital instructional materials. Educational publishers and other vendors must build accessibility features into digital products while creating and updating accurate product VPATs.
Vendors might also do more pre-market and after-market product testing, where individuals with access challenges and various disabilities at different ages, in different learning settings, with different types of devices, use the instructional materials provide feedback.
USDOE’s OCR currently provides some support to vendors about digital accessibility. This support includes video tutorials for designers. Vendors of digital educational materials may also contact them at OCRWebAccessTA@ed.gov.
Mary Rice, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Literacy for the College of Education & Human Sciences at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She is a former classroom teacher of English language arts, ESL, and reading support. She has been involved with K-12 distance, online, and blended learning since 2013 as a researcher, evaluator, teacher, and teacher educator. Mary’s research focuses on the relational aspects of designing, delivering, and doing of inclusive and accessible online learning among educators, parents, and students. She has published over 100 items about her work.
Raymond Rose is the Public Policy Chair for the Texas Digital Learning Association, and a member of the Digital Learning Collaborative Executive Board. He is a former teacher, Associate Professor for Instructional Technology, civil rights specialist, on the team that created the country’s first virtual high school, and is part of the design and delivery team for TxDLA’s Digital Accessibility Certificate course. For the past two decades he has focused on improving awareness of the need for digital accessibility.