The Times, They Are A Changin'
It has been almost a decade since Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require that electronic and information technology used, purchased, or maintained by federal agencies be accessible to persons with disabilities. However, Section 508 has remained largely misunderstood and, while some efforts have been made to comply with the standards set forth in the amendment, enforcement has proven to be problematic. Most products and websites still have a long way to go before they can truly be considered accessible (or usable) for persons with disabilities. Furthermore, Section 508 only applies to federal (and federally funded) agencies. The United States has no laws requiring private agencies to afford accessibility in electronic formats. Recent lawsuits against companies such as Target (http://www.webaim.org/blog/2006/09/08/target_lawsuit/) and Oracle however, (http://webaim.org/blog/2007/02/07/oracle_lawsuit/) are giving private concerns monetary reasons to consider accessibility when developing their products
The internet has made accessibility a global concern. A British Tribunal ruled this year that a US company with no physical presence in the UK was still liable under the UK's Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) which requires that all websites (public and private) meet accessibility standards (http://www.out-law.com/page-7692). The World Health Organization estimates that 10% of the world population (or 600 million people) have some form of disability, yet a study commissioned by the United Nations found that only 3% of websites around the world meet even the basic standards for accessibility. In order to address this deficiency the first Global Forum of the UN Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) was convened in March 2007.
This international focus on accessibility is helping to drive the winds of change toward a more accessible world. Many countries including the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Japan and the European Union have laws relating to accessibility and electronic media and the US Access Board is currently updating the standards set forth in Section 508. With the aging baby boomer population and the realization that 1 in 5 Americans will experience a disability in their lifetime, many businesses are also realizing the benefits of making their products accessible to all.
Over the past five years, the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE) has been working to promote accessibility in electronically mediated education. We have focused on three areas: policy, education and technology. The following sections are the thoughts and predictions of the staff at NCDAE as we prepare to enter a new phase of accessibility (Accessibility 2.0?). It is with enthusiasm and optimism that NCDAE reflects on the past and looks toward the future of accessibility...
The Summit and Beyond
Three short years ago, the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE) staff and affiliates met in a national Summit to assess the status of accessible distance education technology. They defined issues associated with policy development, personnel preparation, and technological advancements deemed necessary to assure that electronically-mediated education realizes its promise-- to enhance opportunities for all learners by minimizing barriers of distance and time and doing so without creating new barriers to the retrieval and use of information. One identified barrier was the limited availability of accessible technologies-- hardware and software that individuals with cognitive disabilities, mobility impairments or sensory loss can use. Underlying reasons were discussed. For example, developers and purchasers of technology may be unaware of or minimize the importance of accessibility. Educators who do not understand the accessibility features incorporated into software may unwittingly design educational materials with built in barriers. To address such barriers, Summit participants identified desirable advancements in technology, education of the public, and policies to promote accessible distance education. Three years later, advancements have occurred, sometimes as predicted and sometimes in unforeseen ways.
In the arena of policy development, both disappointments and advancements are apparent. The National Education Technology Plan did not mention universal design or assistive technology [http://ncdae.org/resources/archives/newsletter/january2006/]. However, efforts are underway to update standards of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and to review guidelines for telecommunications products (Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act). A Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee with representatives of the business and nonprofit sectors is charged to make recommendations that may put teeth into purchasing and use of accessible technologies. Overshadowing policy developments in the United States, the United Nations has focused global attention on accessibility along with other disability issues. It seeks to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In a related article in this newsletter, Marty Blair describes policy developments.
Accessibility tools are becoming available through the efforts of industries, consumers, and educators. Some recognize the market that individuals with disabilities represent, and corporations such as IBM have focused on accessible software development [http://www.ncdae.org/community/newsletter/august2006/#Telecom]. Dialog among open source software developers also promotes accessibility. The effects can be observed in web browser development http://ncdae.org/resources/archives/newsletter/january2007/.
Public awareness of electronic access issues is enhanced to some extent through communications about policy and technology development. On a practical level, however, specific educational efforts must focus upon tools that educators can use. Nonprofit organizations such as the Center for Applied Special Technology promote universal design. Training and technical assistance to support use of accessibility features in information development are made available, for example, by consultants and projects such as WebAIM.
Advancements in any area addressed in the Summit--policy, technology, and education--give cause for optimism that positive effects may spill over into other areas, thus raising expectations that electronic information must be and will be accessible. The NCDAE aspires to continue work with affiliates to promote such efforts on all fronts.
Federal Legislation and Policy: What to Watch
As in many areas of federal policy, accessibility of education technology appears to be in the WAIT phase of the proverbial "hurry up and wait" cycle. The past 6 years saw a flurry of hurried activity. Advocates hoped (and some are still hoping) for a Section 508 "spill over" effect into state government and education. The development of standards under NIMAS and the December 2006 opening of the NIMAC (National Instructional Materials Access Center) have given us a lot to talk about. The NCDAE and many others are now waiting to see how NIMAS adoption will affect student achievement at the local level. This all comes at a time when electronically-mediated education experts are musing about next generation web technologies, on-demand courses through podcasting, and revised 508 guidelines that, this time, may have a greater "spill over" effect into education.
Many educators are awaiting reauthorization of NCLB (No Child Left Behind). Education advocates are proposing changes in how annual student achievement is measured, how to evaluate highly qualified educators, and how to ensure that students with disabilities are adequately included in measures of adequate yearly progress, among other things. Each of these areas has implications for the use of electronic media in content presentation, and testing and evaluation.
Finally, there is a movement afoot by national disability and technology advocates encouraging the U.S. Department of Justice to provide greater oversight of Section 508 implementation. Again, how this effort will affect education remains to be seen. The effects will certainly be indirect, but the increased attention to accessibility of electronic information in the federal government will certainly raise awareness of these issues in a variety of areas.
NCDAE, like you, continues to watch these emerging issues carefully. We appreciate the collaborative efforts of so many who are dedicated to the full inclusion of all our citizens. It is quite probable that we will enter a new "hurry up" mode in the coming year or two as NIMAS-related research results are published, reauthorization initiatives heat up and new technology is introduced.
System Change Efforts in Education: Four promising practices to improve accessibility
In the past 8 years many educational entities made decisions to create policies that would cover the accessibility of electronically-mediated teaching, and learning. These policies were often the first step of an effort to change pervasive inaccessibility across entire organizational systems. The policies appeared first in higher education. Although the system of the California Community Colleges took an early stance in accessibility policy development individual campuses accomplished most of the work in postsecondary education; and most of these efforts came from publicly-funded institutions. Even a few K-12 schools and districts wrote accessibility policy; the primary and secondary schools that wrote these policies are mainly from states that legislated a Section 508-like law. Now other large-scale efforts are underway to help individuals with disabilities have equal access to educational opportunities (e.g., the California State University system).
Although accessibility policy is necessary for a system to maintain change, it is by itself an insufficient condition to affect the wide scale outcomes desperately needed. One has only to look at the prevalence of inaccessible Web content on a campus with a formal "accessibility policy" to understand the dynamic. Although the accessibility outcomes on many campuses with written policies are noteworthy just as many have failed to reform their complex systems.
As we look to the future of digital accessibility in education there are at least four practices that hold promise to change the current mismatch of articulated policy and inaccessible educational content. Staff of NCDAE believes these practices will be the next wave of effort in the continuing battle to ensure accessibility of technology-mediated education.
- Accessibility policy without implementation plans will cease to exist. Many accessibility policy statements exist all over education today that were never supported through an implementation process. We believe these ineffective policy declarations will be identified as such. It will be back to the drawing board for those that thought they would short-circuit the work to create a well-constructed implementation plan, and then do the work of the plan.
- Accessibility support and training will extend through all personnel ranks. While it is vital for a campus to have accessibility training for their technical staff, this is often where the training and support ends. We believe the next wave of accessibility training will focus on the faculty and line staff who create the Word, PowerPoint, and PDF files that are often placed online.
- Monitoring will focus on immediate improvements, rather than as a reporting tool. It is amazing how many educational entities have a policy but fail to monitor success against the policy, period. For those who do monitor, many use this important mechanism solely for reporting purposes. While it is important to have a single metric against which progress can be measured, these reports do little to help developers identify where they must fine tune their skills, We believe monitoring will begin to become more dynamic and useful to developers and content creators, and to the system itself. Regular, planned, distributed monitoring will be tied to systems that report back on every page that is harvested for evaluation. This information will be given to the developer at the time their page is pulled and evaluated, with the expectation that this information will be useful as they address accessibility concerns.
- Procurement policies for accessible electronic and information technology will thrive. It is amazing how many educational entities have a policy regarding accessibility of technology-mediated learning but do not have any policy that would prohibit the purchase of inaccessible goods and services (e.g., Web authoring tool, a course management system, or outsourced Web development). When this happens we face a never -ending uphill battle. Requirements for accessibility added into procurement contracts or RFP's may be one of the most important tools that can be used in the fight for system wide accessibility.
The Next Generation of Web Applications and Accessibility for People with Disabilities
Innovations such as dynamic HTML and AJAX are beginning to dominate the internet development environment. Web applications that have traditionally been static and linear are now being replaced by dynamic, full featured web applications that often are not accessible.
From Google Maps to the Flickr image sharing site to other AJAX-driven sites, these applications are designed to make the user experience easier and more enjoyable. And indeed this can be true for users with disabilities if accessibility is maintained.
This new paradigm in web application development has implications for the use of the internet in education, particularly for those who use assistive technologies to interface with the computer. The "learning anytime, anywhere" mindset, with content development that dynamically addresses the needs of sophisticated learners may be challenging for assistive technologies that function in a linear way. While standards are beginning to be created to address these complex accessibility issues, the full implementation of these standards across the development, browser, and assistive technology markets is likely several years away. Despite the problems that these next generation web applications may pose, the overall potential for them to increase usability and accessibility for all people is very high. NCDAE continues to focus on these issues and on increasing awareness of accessibility of distance education materials.