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The Promise of Accessible Technology, Part 1 - DOJ

The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee recently convened a hearing entitled “The Promise of Accessible Technology: Challenges and Opportunities.” While the chair, ranking member, and witnesses all commented on the latter, the hearing primarily addressed continuing challenges to realizing the promise of technology in higher education for those with disabilities, drawing in part on the findings and recommendations of the Postsecondary AIM Commission. However, the opening witness, Eve Hill of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Civil Rights, first reiterated the DOJ’s earlier guidance on college and university technology adoption in relation to accessibility:

In June 2010, the Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights of the Department of Education jointly issued a ‘Dear Colleague Letter’ to college and university presidents… regarding the use of electronic book readers and other technology in higher education. The letter explained that requiring the use of emerging technologies… in the classroom violates the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] and [Rehabilitation Act] Section 504 if the educational benefits provided by the technology are not made accessible to students with disabilities in an equally effective and equally integrated manner… The letter emphasized the need to ensure that students with disabilities are afforded an equal opportunity to participate in, or benefit from, college and university aids, benefits, and services, and it called on the institutions to refrain from requiring the use of any electronic book reader, or other similar technology, in a teaching or classroom environment as long as the device remains inaccessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision…

The Department of Education clarified this guidance in May 2011, when it issued a document entitled “Frequently Asked Questions About the June 29, 2010 Dear Colleague Letter.” The FAQ made clear that the concepts explained in the 2010 letter extended to forms of emerging technology beyond electronic book readers and applied to all operations of schools…

She followed by stressing a major theme of the AIM Commission process—that a key part of colleges and universities meeting their responsibilities under the ADA and Section 504 rests with insisting that they only procure technologies and applications that are accessible to those with disabilities:

As the AIM Commission report notes that one way to ensure access for people with disabilities in compliance with Federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability is to encou4rage publishers, developers, and manufacturers to develop mainstream educational products that are accessible to the maximum extent possible, allowing students with and without disabilities to obtain the same materials at the same time and at the same price. It is up to the market—elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, libraries, government agencies, and public accommodations—who are covered by the ADA to ask about, and insist on, accessible technology from their suppliers.

Hill then provided a strong indication of the importance DOJ is likely to place on technology accessibility, including web accessibility, moving forward (bold emphasis added):

As more and more of our social and economic infrastructure is made available on the internet—in some cases, exclusively online—access to information and electronic technologies is increasingly becoming the gateway civil rights issue for individuals with disabilities…

…The broad mandate of the ADA to provide an equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities to participate in and benefit from all aspects of American civic and economic life will be served in today’s technologically advanced society only if it is clear to businesses, employers, and educators, among others, that their websites must be accessible.

The Department of Justice has long taken the position that both State and local government websites and the websites of private entities that are public accommodations are covered by the ADA. In other words, the websites of entities covered by… the statute are required by law to ensure their sites are fully accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Hill further emphasized these points by noting the DOJ’s intention to publish regulations on web accessibility under the ADA in 2012.

For additional information on DOJ views and positions regarding technology accessibility, you can read Hill’s written testimony in its entirety from the Senate HELP Committee web site.


This post is the first in a three-part series. View part 2 on The National Federation of the Blind and part 3 on colleges and universities.