Politics, Accessibility and Education – oh my!

On February 7th, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on “The Promise of Accessible Technology: Challenges and Opportunities”.  This was one of a series of hearings convened to explore issues that impact employment opportunities for persons with disabilities, and the first of a series on the use of Educational Technology to improve student achievement.

To be honest, I don’t watch many senate hearings (it may have something to do with my tendency to yell at the TV screen and stomp out of the room).  However, I actually enjoyed watching this one – I found myself nodding vigorously on several occasions – in fact, by the end I had become a human bobble-head.

Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa chaired the hearing noting that “Access to curriculum and instructional material is a civil right – one that all students should be able to enjoy equally. Although technological advancements make accessibility readily achievable in modern classrooms the level of accessibility continues to be uneven.”  Senator Harkin, a long time advocate for persons with disabilities, also sponsored the bill that mandated that all new televisions include a decoding chip for closed-captioning in the early 90’s.

The committee heard from four witnesses: First, Eve Hill of the Department of Justice stressed that accessibility is a fundamental issue of civil rights and discussed the direction that legislation is taking in support of equal access.  Next Mark Riccobono of the National Federation of the Blind described a world of accessibility that is achievable today pointing out that technology can either level the playing field or segregate an entire population.  Finally, John Quick from the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Columbus Indiana and Mark Turner, of the Accessible Technology Initiative for California State University in Long Beach shared their stories and strategies for the successful implementation of digital accessibility in both K-12 and Higher Education environments.

Several themes emerged across all of the testimonies – among them were the fact that both technology and curriculum need to be independently accessible, emphasizing that the delivery method and the message need to be designed to best serve the student.  The committee also stressed the advantages of including accessibility from the beginning of the design process.  Finally, the importance of getting vendors on board the accessibility bandwagon was discussed by everyone who took the microphone – with many of them  pointing out the power of numbers to require manufacturers to provide accessible technologies .

It is refreshing to note that this committee has bipartisan support.  In this heated political climate the fact that both sides are able to agree speaks volumes about the issue.  I finished watching the hearing filled with optimism – it’s exciting to watch what many of us have been advocating for gaining the momentum necessary to succeed …

If you have 99 minutes, the hearing is available online and well worth a watch… Watch the full hearing

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