Access to Electronically-Mediated Education for Students with Disabilities: Policy Issues

Martin E. Blair
Center for Persons with Disabilities
Utah State University

Hilary Goldmann
Higher Education Information Technology Alliance
Washington D.C.

Joy Relton
American Foundation for the Blind
Washington D.C.

Disability policies over the past thirty years have been based on the assertion that individuals with disabilities are entitled to: (a) equality of opportunity, (b) full participation in society, (c) opportunities for independent living, and (d) participation in activities that will enable economic self-sufficiency[1]. Federal disability laws and policies have been based upon values derived from these assertions. In the educational realm, laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Public Law 105-17) address the full participation of preschool and school aged children. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Public Law 105-220—the Rehabilitation Act is part of the Workforce Investment Act) protects individuals in settings wherein federal funds are used to provide all or part of the services. The Americans with Disabilities Act (Public Law 101-336) defines the concept of reasonable accommodation for individuals of all ages, and more recently, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) sets stringent accountability standards for public schools. These have had a dramatic impact on how education is provided to all segments of our society.

During this same time period, rapid advances in electronic technology have transformed computers from room-size mainframes to pocket-sized personal digital assistants. These advances have had a tremendous effect on all aspects of our lives, none more so than in education.[2] Electronic technology has been infused into just about every area of education. This technology affects, for example, course registration, library reference access, communication with students and their families, and provision of course content via the Internet or other distance education media (i.e., video and audio conference, satellite, broadcast and closed circuit television). Technology has enabled the floodgates of information to be opened for students, young and old, across the world. However, for many students with disabilities, these floodgates may be jammed. In the broadest sense, disability is defined as the inability to interact with one’s environment in a way that is done by the general population. If the method of opening the floodgates and retrieving information is designed for use by the general population with little or no consideration for alternative methods of achieving the same result, it is conceivable that some, including those who experience disability, are not able to access what the general population can.[3]

Learners with Disabilities

Individuals with disabilities are entering into formal education settings as never before. This trend is expected to continue in the foreseeable future. For example, the number of post-secondary students who have identified themselves as having a disability has reportedly risen from 2.6 percent in 1978, to between 10 and 20 percent in 2002. Students with learning disabilities represent over half of this number according to the National Center for the Study of Post-Secondary Educational Supports. Recent data from the public school sector indicates that special education teachers are serving well over 6 million students with disabilities in public schools[4]. Further, very recent data from the Microsoft Corporation indicates that over half of working age adults are likely or very likely to need some type of adaptation to fully benefit from or interact with their computer.[5] The needs of these adults, some of whom may be involved in continuing education, must be considered whenever educational and training curricula are developed—whether in public, private, or corporate education settings. These data, considered collectively, substantiate that a large number of children and adults have some type of disability that could potentially limit their ability to use electronic technology in educational pursuits. Whether this technology is used for receiving course content or gathering information for “self-learning” is irrelevant.

Disability advocates and educational practitioners have long understood the need to ensure that the design of educational technology permits all students to benefit from the opportunities that technology affords. Efforts have been made in recent years to protect the rights of students with disabilities by providing them equal access to the general curriculum and to a free, appropriate public education. As an example, public policy has recognized the importance of assistive technology (AT)[6] in enabling each individual, including those with the most severe disabilities, to reach his or her potential. Federal law has been enacted to ensure that those who use assistive technologies or who have functional limitations that affect their ability to interact with standard electronic information technology have equal access to the goods and services provided by the Federal government. Among other things, guidelines for Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act enacted on June 21, 2001 provide criteria for how to develop web-based content in a way that is usable with assistive technologies. Application of Section 508 criteria to state governments, including public schools and institutions of higher education, is under much scrutiny.[7] Given the recent nature of Section 508 and the uncertainty of how it applies to States, recent policy discussion regarding technology access for students with disabilities in public and higher education has focused on the application of Section 508 to Internet-based coursework. We believe that the current national technology access discussion should be broadened from its current focus on the Internet.

Students with functional limitations (e.g., limited or no vision, limited or no hearing, limited physical ability, or cognitive disability) are affected by electronic technology in education in various ways. Electronically mediated instruction, particularly in distance education, can impose barriers to accessing content for many students with disabilities. For example, students who are blind will have a difficult time taking online quizzes if the quizzes are structured in such a way that their assistive technology or screen reader software is unable to read HTML code. Students who are deaf or hard of hearing are unable to use web-streamed video if it is not appropriately captioned. Likewise, individuals who have limited upper body mobility or limited hand dexterity are unable to use a computer mouse or keyboard if rapid keystrokes or mouse movement is required to interact with the content displayed on the screen. Students with limited upper body mobility who are required to toggle on a microphone switch and students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing who are asked to participate in a video-based lecture without captioning are at a serious disadvantage. If instructors who present information using electronic whiteboards or computer graphics do not describe the information accurately, they will certainly leave out those who are blind or have visual impairments; students with limited or no vision won’t be able to see what is being displayed on the screen. In short, educators must consider the needs of all students when designing electronically-mediated instruction and especially when courses are to be offered in distance education.

David Kessler and Barbara Keefe recognized that schools must provide reasonable accommodations in areas beyond electronic information technology when distance education is the medium of delivery.[8] They called for an “accessible distance education classroom [that] requires the same careful planning that is used for any successful educational space.” They further stated that, “While the ADA does not mandate that distance learning programs be provided, where they are offered, accessibility requirements are no less stringent than for standard educational programs.”

The Challenge

Participants in the policy strand of the National Summit are tasked with considering education and information technology policies that may have an effect on accessible distance education classrooms and the entire realm of “educational space” with which learners with disabilities interact during their educational careers. Based on this foundation, they are to identify policy barriers, describe solutions, develop action plans and identify strategic partnerships to address the policy barriers. To “prime” that process, the authors of this paper focused on several emerging policy topics in the public K-12 system and in higher education. The brief discussion of topics below is not meant to be exhaustive; rather it is designed to help participants consider some of the various big picture issues facing policy makers who work in areas where disability, education and information technology policy interact. It is expected that Summit participants already have a solid knowledge base regarding most of these issues. In the sections that follow, the authors make a brief statement of need and pose questions for thoughtful consideration.

K-12 Education and Disability

The hallmark education policy for children with disabilities is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which provides students with disabilities age 3-21 the civil right to a “Free Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE). Through the years the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, and the courts have ruled that assistive technology (AT)—that which enables equal access to curriculum—must be provided to students as part of FAPE. In comments to the recent IDEA regulations, the Department of Education made it clear that the schools must consider the provision of AT as part of the Individual Education Program (IEP).[9] According to the comments, AT should be provided to students with disabilities based on their personal needs. For example, blind or visually impaired students might need electronic note takers or cassette recorders. In addition to individual AT devices, students must be provided access to devices used by all students. In short, the comments indicated that the “school must ensure that the necessary accommodation is provided”.[10] So, students involved in education wherein technology is required to provide equal access to the curriculum are entitled to the technology at no cost to the student or his/her family. The “appropriate” part of this equation is even more germane to this discussion.

The determination of whether a school district is responsible for providing AT that enables equal access often hinges on whether the AT services are part of what is found to be an appropriate education. The landmark case in this area, though related to accommodation and not specifically to technology, is Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley. [11] In this case the District court found that the school should have provided a sign language interpreter for a student who was deaf because it was part of FAPE and because the interpreter would allow her to perform at her potential. The Supreme Court reversed the District Court’s decision and said the schools were not required to provide services to enable students with disabilities to maximize their potential. The Supreme Court said that the schools only needed to provide an adequate education, which allowed a student to succeed and to progress from grade to grade. In summary, providing equal access to a student is not defined by maximizing student potential, rather it is defined by enabling adequate progress.

This case is indicative of the larger question of accessibility of information and curriculum in schools. It indicated that accommodation was a minimum requirement of the school system and accepted the fact that students with disabilities are entitled to services and/or devices that enable their education. How these accommodations, particularly those that require information technology, fit into the larger information technology infrastructure of schools is an open question.

The Consortium on School Networking (CoSN) recently published its 2004 compendium of eight monographs dealing with various educational technology issues in schools.[12] One of these, “Building Bridges: Assistive and Universal Technology for ALL Students” by Jessica M. Brodey, discusses ways in which assistive technology can and should be considered as part of a school’s overall technology plan. This is significant in that it elevates the issue of disability and equal access from discussions relegated solely to special education to a school-wide or district wide forum. From this perspective, technology access for students with disabilities receives systems-wide attention.

The IDEA is currently in the process of reauthorization in the U.S. Congress. A notable feature of this bill is the inclusion of language describing a national electronic file format for textbooks.[13] The national file format is designed to assist students with print disabilities by ensuring that digital texts are available in a common, consistent format that can be read by assistive technologies. If this provision remains in IDEA and the bill is passed, students with print disabilities will have access to text much more quickly than in year’s past. However, major questions still abound with respect to how this provision (Section 675(a)) will be implemented. First, it applies only to students with qualified print disabilities. Second, the Chaffee Amendment,[14] a law that deals with copyright of education materials, has an exclusive list of who may benefit from alternative formatted text. The definition may be so restrictive that students with print disabilities who are not blind or who do not have some physical disability that impairs their ability to read may not be able to benefit from this advance in technology. The best example of a student who might be excluded is one with a specific learning disability (with due acknowledgement that there is debate as to the nature of learning disability). Finally, IDEA affects only those students with disabilities age 3-21 served by public education. Application of the national file format technology to adults in post-secondary and corporate education is still a long way off. Further discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of this paper; it suffices to say that national technology policy in the public education arena is moving toward consistency in electronic file formats thus enabling individuals with disabilities to have greater access to digital text.

The U.S. Department of Commerce recently indicated that disability and universal design should be considered in the development of new technologies for education. This was briefly treated by several authors in the Vision 2020 document published jointly by the U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Department of Education in September 2002.[15] The tenor of the document is encouraging in that the U.S. Secretaries of Commerce and Education combined efforts to encourage discussion on ways to describe “learning opportunities that meet all learners’ needs, and provide knowledge and training when and where it is needed.”[16] It also sets the stage for discussion that responds to the charge, “Our education and training institutions need to prepare for rapid technological change.”[17] The U.S. Secretary of Education indicated that this information would be used to help shape and define the National Educational Technology Plan. However, of the 14 monograph entries, only one[18] specifically mentioned learners with a disability. It is disconcerting that issues of disability were not specifically mentioned or addressed by most of the authors. This omission might suggest that disability policy, education policy and technology policy continue to develop in parallel tracks.

If IDEA is the hallmark for disability-related education, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is the hallmark of education policy for all children in the United States. A relevant feature of NCLB is its requirement to develop a National Technology Educational Plan.[19] The third of its kind over the past eight years, this plan is designed to improve academic achievement and prepare students for the century ahead by developing a long-range strategy for educational technology implementation. Ways in which the educational needs of children with disabilities fit into this strategy have not been fully explored, but these are the subject of at least 17 public comments provided to the U.S. Department of Education between January 1, 2004 and March 31, 2004 regarding the plan. These relatively few comments highlight the perception that equal access for students of all abilities it not an objective of plan development.

Statement of Need

To summarize the previous section, in the public education system it is clear that students with disabilities are entitled to a free, appropriate public education. However, application of this principle to the rapidly increasing technology-mediated educational system is somewhat unclear. Technology is changing rapidly as are the policies and practices that govern it. This is especially evident in the proposed national file format that is part of the current IDEA reauthorization bill. Unfortunately, how that policy interacts with current copyright law and how it is expanded to benefit adults it with disabilities remains to be seen. There are efforts to merge parallel technology policy discussions (i.e., special education and assistive technology with school-wide/ district-wide information technology) but these are lagging behind the incredible pace of technology advances. While this lag may be inevitable, it should be recognized as a potential barrier to equality of opportunity for students with disabilities.

Questions to be Addressed:

  1. How can technology policies be developed to ensure free appropriate public education for all students?
  2. How can the No Child Left Behind Act and the National Educational Technology Plan affect the provision of technology to ensure equal access?
  3. What are the barriers and possible solutions to full implementation of the national file format for students with “print disabilities”?
  4. For students receiving special education services, what policies are in place or need to be developed to ensure that they can equitably access electronically mediated instruction in a timely manner?
  5. Is the information technology infrastructure designed by public education entities developed such that all potential users of the information technology will have equal access?
  6. In the design of distance education systems is native accessibility an appropriate use of educational funds? Who is responsible to see that this happens, general education or special education?
  7. What if schools cannot purchase accessible technology (as per Section 508)? This is impossible if it doesn’t exist. How can industry be held accountable? More importantly, what is the best way for those covered by Section 504 (i.e., any entity that receives federal funds) to be held accountable to the Section 508 guidelines?
  8. How can technology policy be developed so that families of students with disabilities can gain equal access to information technology (an issue of particular importance for parents of children with disabilities in the public K-12 system)?

Higher Education and Disability

Educational technology advances have probably been most noticeable on college and university campuses. This is due to the fact that most, if not all students are required to register for their own classes, conduct their own research, and some (nearly 3 million distance education course enrollments in the 2000-2001 academic year)[20] use technology as the medium for receiving an education. Electronic information technology is the prime method for students in post-secondary education to access reference materials in libraries. Anyone who has interacted with a university or college campus in the last ten years understands that students must be proficient in the use electronic information technology in order to access the administrative structure at their educational institution (e.g., course registration, campus information, financial aid, job information, scholarship information, etc.). With the expansion of information technology across college and university campuses, the need to ensure that it is accessible to all students with disabilities is imperative. Unfortunately, information technology changes so rapidly that developers appear to be more concerned with taking advantage of new features and capacities than with ensuring that the features and capacities can interact with assistive technologies. This maintains an ongoing need for accommodation.

Some students receive accommodation services as a result of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.[21] Under this statute it is unlawful to discriminate against persons with disabilities. Section 504 provides that it is unlawful to deny access to federally funded programs or to discriminate against persons with disabilities in gaining access to these programs. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has interpreted the provisions of Section 504 to mean that students with disabilities should be given the opportunity and assistance to reach their potential on an equal basis to those students who do not have a disability.

The Americans with Disabilities Act also bears upon higher education, but is open to broad interpretation. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is focused on the accessibility of programs and facilities operated by state and local governments and is thus a basis for the provision of accommodation services. Public colleges and universities are covered entities under this title. As such, they are required to provide reasonable accommodations and modifications[22] and to comply with the “equally effective communication” clause which states, “A public entity must ensure that its communications with individuals with disabilities are as effective as communications with others” without requiring fundamental alteration to the nature of the communication and without causing undue burden. Title III of the ADA addresses accessibility of public accommodations and specifically excludes state and local governments, assigning authority for accessibility in these settings to Title II. It does, however, cover libraries, museums, and so on, that are owned privately, but that provide services to the public. Title III includes the same language for effective communication, reasonable accommodation and removal of communication barriers as does Title II. It is generally accepted that Title II of the ADA applies to state-sponsored educational entities and that private educational entities are covered under Title III of the ADA. The only possible exemption to this could be private educational institutions that are operated by a religious entity. Religious organizations are currently exempt from the ADA; if they do not receive any federal funding, they would also be exempt from Section 504.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education looked at the legislative history of Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act with respect to the term “reasonable accommodation.” The Department said that, since the only restrictions on accommodations are related to rehabilitation and employment, Congress did not intend to place any limits on accommodations for students in the educational system (CITE). How this applies to post-secondary education remains to be interpreted.

Statement of need

Several federal statutes apply to students with disabilities in post-secondary education settings. As suggested in the section above and for the purposes of this present discussion, reasonable accommodation and effective communication clauses appear to be the underpinning of these statutes. How they apply and to what extent is frequently debated by policy makers and the courts. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act refers to a specific, but very important segment of the overall accessibility issue. While Section 504 and the ADA have broader applicability, they tend to be so broad as to make specific application to new and emerging technology infrastructure difficult. This raises the central question of whether it is better to focus public policy on development of accommodation policies and procedures or to focus on ensuring native accessibility of the technology as it is initially developed. Until this is resolved[23], it may be difficult to decide on how the government will enforce policies to ensure equality of opportunity and what the appropriate role of government should be—policy development, enforcement, training and technical assistance, public awareness, or a combination of these.

Questions to be addressed:

1. How is reasonable accommodation/ modification to be defined in educational settings?

2. What is a reasonable accommodation in a distance education setting, and what should the standard be for defining such?

3. What is the reach of Section 504 and the ADA into public and private institutions of education, and how should that reach be defined?

4. What are the barriers with regard to information technology and distance education that deny equal access for students with disabilities?

5. What requirements of design and information technology infrastructure are reasonable to impose on public and private education entities?

6. How should the issues of accommodation vs. native accessibility be defined and/or implemented?

Higher Education Information Technology Policy

Eleven national associations have joined forces to form the Higher Education Information Technology Alliance.[24] The HEIT Alliance was established to “help define and promote the higher education and library community's collective interests in federal information technology (IT) policy.” Its 2004 IT Legislative and Regulatory Issues Agenda focuses on 6 broad topic areas that include: Cyberinfrastructure; Information Technology in the Learning Environment; Intellectual Property; Security and Privacy; Telecommunications; and, Workforce Development. A review of these topic areas indicates that there are several areas where the needs of students with disabilities should be considered. Other coalitions such as the Alliance for Equity in Higher Education[25] recently issued a report calling for increased technology investment at minority serving institutions. Serving the Nation: Opportunities and Challenges in the use of Information Technology at Minority Serving Colleges and Universities, notes that minority-serving institutions are in an “unrivaled position to remedy the technological disenfranchisement of underserved groups but remain limited by a lack of financial resources.” The Report calls for new legislation and modifications to existing legislation to broaden access to IT funding for minority serving institutions (MSI). It also calls for increased access for MSIs under several existing programs at various federal agencies including the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation. Needs of disenfranchised student groups appear to be rising to the attention of policy makers, legislators and university administrators alike. Yet another group, the Business-Higher Education Forum, released a report entitled, Building a Nation of Learners[26] in 2003 that recognizes and highlights a role for technology if colleges and universities are going to achieve the needed changes in teaching and learning to meet global challenges. The report is focused on how to better prepare college graduates for future jobs and highlights the uses of technology in this effort. It calls for improvements in curriculum and policy, and for increases in the federal funding commitment to foster pedagogical and technological innovation. These efforts seem to suggest that the time is ripe for the needs of post-secondary students with disabilities to escalate to a national, focused discussion.

The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, with the support of other national associations, and colleges and universities across the country, is calling on Congress and the Administration to seize the opportunity to develop a new plan for expanding educational delivery in the 21st century. The Millennium Partnership Initiative is “envisioned as a partnership between the federal and state governments, businesses, local communities, and accredited higher education institutions. MPI resources would build IT infrastructure at higher education institutions across the country and provide the means for institutions to transform the educational landscape through cutting-edge innovations in teaching and learning. The MPI would result in campuses that prepare and graduate students ready to work in all types of 21st Century environments—including industry, government service, K—12 classrooms, and higher education.”[27] Implementation of this initiative could have revolutionary effects on the quality and reach of higher education. Ensuring full accessibility of the IT infrastructure at institutions of higher education is not mentioned, however. Efforts to promote accessibility in the development and implementation of this initiative have yet to be initiated.


An emerging concept, “cyberinfrastructure” looks to the near future for the development of high performance networks, digital libraries and databases, sensors and effectors, middleware, application frameworks, collaborative tools and services designed to revolutionize education. The FY 2004 House appropriations bill requests “not less than $20 million for cyberinfrastructure activities.” Last year, the NSF Directorate focusing on Computer and Information Science and Engineering was reorganized and created a new division on Shared Cyberinfrastructure. The tenets of this concept are forward-thinking and are aimed to thrust our society into the next phase of the information technology revolution, but what of students with disabilities? The cyberinfrastructure of this new century will be useful only if it can accommodate the needs of all potential users. The National Science Foundation (NSF) released a report February 2003[28] recommending the deployment of an international Advanced Cyberinfrastructure Program. The NSF Blue Ribbon Panel that published the report does “emphasize the high cost of not undertaking an integrated, comprehensive approach to cyberinfrastructure”. The needs of users with disabilities (e.g., alternative input and output methods) must be considered as part of the integrated, comprehensive approach.

Security and Privacy

Our society lives in a heightened state of awareness of national security. The Cyber Security Research and Development Act passed in November 2002 as Public Law 107-305 provides for National Science Foundation grants for basic research on innovative approaches regarding the structure of computer and network hardware and software. It has tremendous implications for the security of information technology hardware and software. One issue that seems to be missing from the discussion is how increased security will affect users of assistive technology who are required to interact with computer hardware and software for basic information. It cannot be effectively argued that the technology access needs of individuals should supercede national security, but these needs should not be ignored. It may be possible for standards to be developed so that assistive technology innovators can incorporate the use of their technologies into the secure IT infrastructure in educational settings. This discussion is particularly important in the area of data encryption.

Cyber security efforts are essential, but can students with disabilities who use assistive technologies to interface with a school’s information technology infrastructure be locked out as security measures become increasingly restrictive? Information privacy concerns are real (i.e., HIPAA and FERPA) and efforts to protect individual data are laudable, but use of interfacing assistive technologies (e.g., screen reader) must be considered as data protection measures are enacted. College, university and public school networks must be secure, but not at the expense of those whose only interface is through assistive technology.

Intellectual Property

Digital rights management and intellectual property are complex policy areas receiving a remarkable amount of attention over the past several years. This has certainly been part of the public education national file format discussion. The ability of publishers to recover costs from the use of digital text is an important concern for the solvency of these companies. Copyright protection of digital format is addressed and somewhat narrowly defined in the November 2002 TEACH Act.[29] Likewise, the so-called Chaffee Amendment[30] has the potential to lock out certain segments of students if their disability does not fit into a specific definition.[31] Digital rights management will likely be a legislative topic for many years to come. As it evolves, Congress will need to ensure that language, regulations and so on are as inclusive as possible, recognizing the various technology needs of students with disabilities.

Higher Education Act

Section 488 of the Higher Education Act authorizes distance education demonstration programs. The current statute requires data collection and demonstration activities with respect to the uses and efficacy of various technologies as well as a description of regulatory requirements that should be in place to ensure access to high quality distance education programs. Nowhere in the statute is there language requiring research and development on ways to enhance distance education access for students and faculty with disabilities. Since technology is incorporated into many facets of higher education, including the classroom, it makes sense that these settings would be an appropriate focus of disability research. The needs of learners with a variety of abilities (e.g., blindness, learning disability, English as a second language, and so on) cannot be overlooked in the planning and implementation of such research programs. The flexibility of distance education is a great opportunity that must be extended to all students.

Statement of need

There is little mention in higher education distance education policy of disability needs. The rights of post-secondary students with disabilities in educational settings are generally protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the ADA. Many services in post-secondary educational institutions are technologically-mediated. Therefore, it is essential that these services, including content delivery, student information, institutional administration, and access to educational resources be available to all learners at the same time. Recent statements by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights indicate that ad-hoc accommodations may be in violation of the ADA. Entities covered by Title II of the ADA appear to have an “affirmative duty” to develop their products and services in an accessible manner. There are several policy initiatives and current laws in the area of higher education that have direct bearing on the accessibility of electronically-mediated educational resources for students with disabilities and their families.

Questions to be addressed

  1. Who is responsible for ensuring access in educational settings? Is it an accommodation or should education-based information technology be natively accessible?
  2. How are the needs of students with disabilities considered in the larger discussion of digital rights management?
  3. What is the best way for technology access principles to be included in initiatives such as the Millennium Partnership Initiative?
  4. What possible amendments to the Higher Education Act would result in ubiquitous information technology access for all students?
  5. What standards and guidelines should be in place to ensure that as broadband and wireless technology becomes more universal, educational content is accessible to all students? Who should be held accountable for this?
  6. Cybersecurity and cyberinfrastructure are essential elements to an advanced, safe society. What are the methods and avenues for ensuring that the technology needs of individuals with disabilities are met in the planning, design, implementation and evaluation facets of these initiatives?
  7. Recognizing the variety of policy areas affected by disability, where are the leverage points for including policy provisions for students with disabilities?


This paper is intended to offer summit participants with basic, foundation information about education and information technology policies that may have an effect on accessible electronically-mediated instruction in classrooms and the entire realm of “educational space” with which learners with disabilities interact. As participants convene at the National Summit on Disability and Access to Education we believe that they will be able to identify policy barriers, describe solutions, develop action plans and identify strategic partnerships to address the barriers. The authors hope that this document offers a big picture perspective on issues that are common to disability, education and information technology policies. We encourage thoughtful contemplation in preparation for the national summit and look forward to working with our colleagues at this provocative event.


[1] Silverstein, R. (2000, August). Public Policy Training Seminar, Washington, DC.

[2] Lissner, S.L. Technological Access and the Law, Retrieved from the Internet Feb.19, 2004,

[3] Noble, S. (2002). Web access and the law: A public policy framework. Library Hi Tech, 20(4), 399-405.

Kessler, D & Keefe, B. (1999, July). Going the Distance, AS&U, 44-48.

[4] Retrieved from on March 31, 2004.

[5] Retrieved from on February 26, 2004.

[6] Assistive technology is “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. (29 U.S.C. Sec 2202(2).” Examples include screen reader software, screen magnifiers, adapted keyboard and alternative input/ output devices, mobility devices, assistive hearing devices, and can include learning software, among many other things.

[7] Retrieved from on March 30, 2004.

[8] Kessler, D. & Keefe, B. (1999, July). Going the Distance, AS&U, 44-48.

[10] See Section 300.308 of the IDEA regulations. Available at Subpart C at:, retrieved on April 22, 2004.

[11] Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982).

[12] See for additional information.

[13] Additional information and overview available at

[14] See Public Law 89-522.

[16] In the report’s cover letter from U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Donald L. Evans.

[17] In the report’s cover letter from U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Donald L. Evans.

[18] Chen, M. & Arnold, S.D., A Day in the Life of a Young Learner: A 2020 Vision, the George Lucas Foundation.

[19] See for additional information.

[21] 29 U.S.C. 791 et seq.

[22] Reasonable accommodation is a change in the work environment or in the way things are usually done that result in an equal employment opportunity for an individual with a disability. A reasonable modification is an action requiring a public entity to modify its policies, practices, or procedures to avoid discrimination unless the modification would fundamentally alter the nature of its service, program, or activity.

[23] Holly Yu of CSU/LA asserts in her recent 2003 document, Web Accessibility and the Law published by Idea Group Publishing that, “A public entity violates its obligations under the ADA when it only responds on an ad-hoc basis to individual requests for accommodation. OCR indicates that there is an affirmative duty to develop a comprehensive policy in advance of any request for auxiliary aids or services.” This seems to intimate that the notion of accommodation is inappropriate and that native accessibility is expected, where feasible.

[24] See for additional information.

[25] See for additional information.

[27] See for additional information.

[28] See for additional information.

[29] Public Law 107-273, Subtitle C: Educational Use Copyright Exemption. The official bill summary states, “Declares that this Act does not authorize the conversion of print or other analog versions of works into digital formats, except that such conversion is permitted only with respect to the amount of such works authorized to be performed or displayed if: (1) no digital version of the work is available to the institution; or (2) such version is subject to technological protection measures that prevent its use.”

[30] An amendment to the Copyright Law of 1996, Public Law 104-197.

[31] From the amendment: "blind or other persons with disabilities" means individuals who are eligible or who may qualify in accordance with the Act entitled "An Act to provide books for the adult blind", approved March 3, 1931 (2 U.S.C. 135a; 46 Stat. 1487) to receive books and other publications produced in specialized formats.