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The Promise of Accessible Technology, Part 2 - NFB

The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee hearing entitled “The Promise of Accessible Technology: Challenges and Opportunities” also featured testimony from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). Early in his comments, Mark Riccobono, executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute for blindness research and training and a member of the Postsecondary AIM Commission, stressed the need to move from “the old accommodations model” for addressing accessibility to “a new paradigm of mainstream accessibility”:

Harnessing the extraordinary promise of technology is within our reach, but it will take leadership, commitment, and ongoing oversight. The alternative is a future where we spend our time, money, and innovative capacity retrofitting bridges to patch the digital divide rather than enjoying the economic and social advantages gained by the increased usability of technology and the increased leveraging of human capacity that results from technology that is designed and built to be accessible to all.

In this regard, he noted the degree to which the NFB sees technology accessibility lacking in the educational sector, but also the degree to which educational institutions face major limitations in meeting accessibility requirements due to a lack of appropriately accessible technologies and applications in the marketplace:

I believe it is fair to say that, with only a few limited exceptions, educational institutions at the K-12 and post-secondary level are currently failing to make a passing grade in the subject of realizing the promise of technology for students with disabilities. However, it is not entirely their fault. These institutions have 100 percent of the responsibility for ensuring their programs and services are accessible and, while they should develop more capacity to ensure the accessibility of the technologies they purchase, the reality is they cannot effectively test the accessibility for every piece of technology on the market—the technology vendors need to do better. There is a need for shared responsibility, clear standards, and strong enforcement.

Riccobono then returned to the point repeatedly raised during the AIM Commission process and highlighted by Eve Hill of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights in her remarks to the committee—that colleges and universities should strive to meet their technology accessibility obligations and drive change in the marketplace by insisting that they will only buy technology products and applications that are accessible to persons with disabilities “out of the box”:

Why would any educational institution choose the Nook considering its inaccessibility? I believe it is largely because they are stuck in the old paradigm of having to accommodate students with disabilities. Therefore, it is natural to the schools to purchase something that is inaccessible and figure out an alternative for students with disabilities. Furthermore, the educational institutions have complete responsibility under the law for ensuring equal access to their educational programs. The old paradigm has created the practice of buying the product you feel best meets what your need is and working out accessibility if you have to do so. However, the new paradigm should suggest that schools start demanding complete accessibility in their technology products, including e-books, and hold the producers of those technologies responsible. The educational textbook market is a significant piece of the publishing industry and, with the growing adoption of e-books, we need to ensure that the books being used in education are accessible to students with print disabilities.

To help effect the change in technology accessibility the NFB sees as necessary, Riccobono made a series of recommendations to the committee, including:

  • Having the U.S. Department of Education (ED) implement “checks and balances” to ensure that its grants do not fund the development of inaccessible digital instructional materials
  • Requiring the National Science Foundation (NSF) to take a more proactive approach to ensuring its grantees understand and integrate accessibility requirements into digital instructional resources and applications they develop
  • Ensuring that federal agencies only provide public information and resources via accessible channels
  • Authorizing the U.S. Access Board to develop functional standards for accessibility in digital instructional materials, per the AIM Commission recommendations which also define “instructional materials” as including the applications, systems, and devices through which they are delivered
  • Granting students with disabilities the right to sue companies “systemically placing inaccessible technologies into K-12 or post-secondary education programs” for doing so.

For additional information on the NFB’s views regarding technology accessibility in higher education, please see Riccobono’s written testimony in its entirety from the Senate HELP Committee web site.


This post is the second in a three-part series. View part 1 on the Department of Justice and part 3 on colleges and universities.