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NCDAE: The National Center on Disability and Access to Education

Increasing universal access by
developing educational resources

Policy Workgroup Final Summary


The policy workgroup of the National Summit on Disability and Distance Education met on May 11-12, 2004 in Washington, DC and identified five areas where future NCDAE activities should be focused. These include:

  1. Development and implementation of model policy and model policy research activities;
  2. Modification of existing distance learning policies to include accessibility components;
  3. Description and possible modification of laws and policies that dictate application of distance education technologies;
  4. Understanding and influencing industry design standards, including issues of copyright, open source, and interoperability; and,
  5. Implementation of public awareness efforts that promote existing resource materials, national partnerships, and content resources for training and technical assistance of government, industry, and education entities.

Some of these issues were treated more in-depth than others. For example, the majority of the discussion on the second day of the summit surrounded Areas One and Two: Model Policy Research, and Modification of Existing Distance Learning Policies. There remains a good body of work to discuss and decide on priority activities to enhance accessibility of electronically-mediated instruction. The five areas listed above are the summarized result of two days’ discussion; other issues were raised and certainly warrant inclusion into the goals, objectives, and activities of the NCDAE. However, as was cautioned by one participant, the NCDAE must focus on a specific set of goals and activities and then not be swayed from those as new opportunities arise. Rather, new opportunities should be incorporated into the existing goals and activities where feasible, or should be held until additional resources become available. With that in mind, participants also provided strong statements for future activities. Their comments regarding the future of NCDAE activities can be grouped into three main statements:

  1. Develop and maintain a strategic focus;
  2. Align and integrate activities with existing groups to ensure that dissemination of the accessibility message is efficient and effective—this may include focused activities on the various education accreditation processes; and,
  3. Ensure that policies and practices promoted by the NCDAE are not only efficient and effective for systems, but that they are equally efficient and effective for individuals.

Five Issues Areas

This section briefly describes the five main issue areas and provides a list of potential activities and strategic partnerships that could be developed to support such activities. Unfortunately, time did not enable summit participants to thoroughly consider the various strategic partnerships and how they might apply to specific activities. To maximize time, participants ended up brainstorming activities and all possible strategic relationships and partnerships that might have some bearing on the desired outcomes. Therefore, this summary includes a simple listing (included in table one) of possible partnerships for activities described by participants. This is a first attempt and should not be considered an exhaustive nor definitive list of partnerships, as these will certainly change and expand over time.

Model Policy and Model Policy Research

Participants indicated that the first activity should be a definition of model policy and components of a model policy. Specifically, this could include a review of existing accessibility policies with an attempt to cull common components and characteristics of those policies that are deemed somewhat visionary and progressive. This process could also include the identification of visionary leaders in this field, many of whom were participants in the NCDAE Summit.

NCDAE was asked to engage in the following activities:

  1. Based on the research described in the paragraph above, collect, promote, and disseminate those accessibility policy components that appear to be accepted as best practice in the field. This process will necessarily result in the redefinition and reclassification of best practices as more and more individuals have an opportunity to consider and possibly implement the accessibility policy components. The definition of "best practice" will necessarily be redefined based on the various experiences and opportunities that arise out of model policy implementation.
  2. Identify promising models that support and aide institutions in the transition from their existing distance education policies to adopting accessibility policy provisions that include individuals; that reduce the need for individual accommodation and maximize compatibility and inclusion. NCDAE could disseminate these support models to institutions in the process of making the transition from limited accessibility to more comprehensive accessibility. This would include provision of real life examples and case studies of the process.
  3. Using the expertise of identified visionaries, conduct a series of social validity studies to evaluate and rate accessibility plans identified in activities one and two.

Modification of Existing Distance Learning Policies

Participants asked NCDAE staff to identify high impact distance education policies that currently serve as model distance education policies throughout the United States. These may not necessarily include accessibility or accommodation as a criterion for being nominated a "high impact policy." These are policies that are adopted by the largest group(s) of providers. Once these high impact policies have been identified and adopters of those policies have been identified, NCDAE staff could develop specific strategies to get these policies adopters include accessibility provisions and key accessibility components into their policies. This strategy will probably target those responsible for accreditation processes and a description of the manner in which accessibility components can be included as part of accreditation criteria. Specific strategies could be developed jointly by visionaries identified in the first area, as well as through collaboration with strategic partners listed in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Strategic Partners

Higher Education

Public Education

Assistive Technology/Industry

Advocacy Organization

Distance Learning





ALA/ACRL (Distance Learning Section)







League for Innovation





Access Board






Library Association






Nat. Organization on Disability

Electronic Frontier Foundation




Digital Divide Foundation


Berkman Center ( Harvard University)




Benton Foundation


THE Journal






Syllabus publication

Distance Learning Center for Democracy and Technology

6 presidential associations











Accessibility Forum

Federal and State Laws

This area warranted much more discussion that it got. An interesting feature was the broad array of perspectives with which participants approached this topic. State and local practitioners saw the discussion of law and policy from an applied pragmatic, practical view. National advocates and professional policy specialists viewed this discussion in terms of major laws and methods for effecting statutory change. While both views were correct, it made consensus on major strategic activities difficult to achieve. The group did, however, come to consensus on a number of points. A major discussion among participants revolved around the applicability of federal law (e.g., Section 504, Section 508, ADA, Telecomm Act, Copyright Law) to distance education at the state and local levels. Insufficiency of federal law with respect to disability and access to education was described and may be due to lack of understanding of federal law, rather than not having applicable laws. There was also a discussion of the impact of state law and its possible conflict with federal laws. Though this is not likely, it may occur. Laws which result from regulation may also provide conflicting information to entities wanting to ensure accessibility and maximum availability of education to individuals. The interpretation of law with regard to disability and accessibility is relatively new, has not been tried in the courts, and precedence has not yet been set with respect to these issues. The application of Section 508 to state organizations and institutions has yet to be legally defined. This issue is now barely three years old and needs to be followed closely. It was agreed that it would be preferable to ensure consistency across federal and state entities with respect to application of Section 508. Finally, ensuring that broadband capability is achieved by rural, remote, and frontier communities should be a focus of advocacy activities. While not a high priority policy initiative for NCDAE, the encouragement of broadband technology into these communities was suggested as a worthy use of NCDAE resources; much of distance education technology and assistive technology that ensures a measure of equal access requires broadband access.

NCDAE was asked to engage in the following activities:

  1. Monitor interpretations of federal and state law as it relates to accessibility of distance education technologies and disseminate information as it develops.
  2. Attempt to include accessibility as criteria for federally funded programs, similar to the disability employment statement in U.S. Department of Education grant programs.
  3. Disseminate information regarding IT products and their requirement to comply with federal disability law. However, this activity is pending the courts decision with regard to application of federal disability law. Identification of minimal accessibility standards has been undertaken through Section 508. This information should certainly be shared and disseminated as widely as possible.
  4. Submit a letter of inquiry to the US Department of Justice regarding Section 508 and its application to distance education technology.
  5. Submit a letter of inquiry to the US Department of Justice regarding Section 504 and its applicability to Internet technology.
  6. Participate in broader technology discussions, such as privacy, security, broadband, copyright, voice over IP, learning outcomes and accessibility of government information. The goals and outcomes of NCDAE should be shared in conferences, papers, and other venues, to ensure that accessibility is part of the national technology policy discussion.
  7. Exercise influence in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and Telecommunication Act to raise awareness of the need for accessibility in the development and implementation of electronically-mediated instruction.


Unfortunately time did not allow for participants to have a lengthy discussion regarding industry issues with respect to distance education. It was assumed that the technology workgroup would address these issues in-depth. However, participants did ask NCDAE to, as part of its model policy research in area one, develop initiatives to encourage compatibility of mainstream and assistive technologies.

NCDAE was asked to engage in the following activities:

  1. Encourage interoperability and compatibility of assistive technology with distance learning and distance education technologies. This would include a discussion of consensus standards on the development of assistive technology and distance learning technologies;
  2. Encourage discussion of copyright law and open source to enable access to distance learning content; and,
  3. Foster collaboration among summit participants and industry leaders to address the issues introduced in the first two activities identified in this area. This could be done at meetings such as the Assistive Technology Industry Association held each January.

Public Awareness

It was generally agreed by participants that without aggressive public awareness regarding accessibility and compatibility of technology, our efforts would be in vain. Each of the activities described in the areas above could conceivably include its own set of public awareness activities. However, several stood out and deserve to be mentioned.

NCDAE was asked to engage in the following activities:

  1. Identify and disseminate existing resource materials for higher education and K-12 education. This may include a partnership with the National Parent Information Training Centers and national organizations that do not typically engage in disability access discussions;
  2. Publish the findings of the Summit in mainstream professional literature and serve as a resource for national conferences, such as through the development of a national speaker’s bureau that could possibly include the participants of the NCDAE Summit;
  3. Seek opportunities to present at national and international conferences and to serve on national advisory boards to ensure that accessibility is part of the national distance education discussion; and,
  4. Establishand maintain list serves to improve dialog with respect to accessibility in education.