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New U.S. Dept. of Ed. Guidance on Accessibility and Emerging Technologies

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) released today a new Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) expanding on its June 2010 joint DCL with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the use of e-readers that were not fully accessible to those with disabilities, specifically the blind or those having low vision. In last June’s letter, ED and Justice highlighted the fact that institutional uses of emerging technologies, including in e-reader pilot programs of the type against which complaints were brought, must comply with federal accessibility requirements:

"Requiring use of an emerging technology in a classroom environment when the technology is inaccessible to an entire population of individuals with disabilities – individuals with visual disabilities – is discrimination prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) unless those individuals are provided accommodations or modifications that permit them to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner."

Today’s DCL draws attention to a set of frequently asked questions (FAQs) the department has developed to help K-12 and postsecondary institutions better understand how to incorporate accessibility requirements into their planning for and deployment of emerging technologies. The key standard institutions should consider regarding the potential introduction of any new technology into their technology environments is “substantially equivalent ease of use”:

“Under this definition, these students must be afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted students. In addition, although this might not result in identical ease of use compared to that of students without disabilities, it still must ensure equal access to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of such technology. The DCL uses the term ‘substantially equivalent ease of use’ to describe this concept.”

The full FAQ is quite lengthy, with numerous recommendations and examples institutions may find useful in evaluating their existing deployments of technology as well as any they may be considering. Page 4 of the FAQ is particularly worth reviewing in that it addresses the application of the standards cited in the original June 2010 DCL to other forms of emerging technology besides e-readers; online courses, course content, and services; emerging technology pilot programs; and instances where no students with disabilities are currently enrolled.