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The Promise of Accessible Technology, Part 3 - Colleges and Universities

At the recent U.S. Senate hearing on technology accessibility that focused largely on higher education, “The Promise of Accessible Technology: Challenges and Opportunities,” Mark Turner, Director of the Center for Accessible Media at the California State University (CSU), presented his perspective on “the issues faced by postsecondary institutions as they work to ensure that technology used to deliver educational programs and services are usable by all students, staff, faculty, and members of the public—irrespective of disability status.” In doing so, he noted that the size and scope of the CSU, with 23 campuses serving 427,000 students a year, meant that the university system as a whole served enough students with disabilities (approximately 11,000) to populate a mid-sized university in their own right.

In discussing the challenges institutions face in meeting the technology accessibility needs of students with disabilities, Turner echoed a point raised by the previous witnesses: “Whether educational technology products help or hinder accessibility efforts depends largely on the extent to which the vendor incorporated accessibility into the product design and implementation.” He cited as a major concern in this regard the degree to which accessibility support by technology and application providers remains “weak,” highlighting that:

  • “Awareness of accessibility requirements or technical standards among educational technology vendors is uneven.”
  • The quality of accessibility documentation available from educational technology vendors, while improving, remains poor…”
  • “The overall level of commitment to technology accessibility by educational technology vendors is also uneven,” with even many of the providers striving to address accessibility requirements aiming for “baseline compliance” that often “leaves significant accessibility barriers.”

Turner also highlighted the growing strain on colleges and universities in trying to meet technology accessibility needs, noting that, “Some technology products deliver information that cannot be conveyed via accommodation in a manner that is practicable or which provides equally effective access.”  Attempting to overcome this inherent deficit through accommodations, Turner stated, often carries with it “significant complexity and costs” for the institution as well as the student, while the costs and complexity of trying to switch to an alternative technology or application may be prohibitive.

Turner then discussed the CSU Accessible Technology Initiative (ATI) as a comprehensive, system-wide response to accessibility challenges, including those posed by the academic and administrative uses of technology. He cited the ATI’s role in fostering the development of campus accessibility plans and capacity, creating accessibility communities of practice across the system, maintaining central repositories of accessibility training, awareness, and planning resources, and working with campuses and vendors to evaluate and, when necessary, remediate the accessibility of technologies and applications for system-wide adoption. In this regard, he highlighted the ATI eTextbook Accessibility Project, which seeks to provide CSU campuses with standardized checklists for gathering and sharing e-textbook product information; the project is also developing a standardized template for institutions to use in evaluating the accessibility of e-textbooks across an array of delivery platforms. He also discussed the CSU Google Apps Evaluation Report, in which the ATI coordinated a system-wide evaluation of the accessibility of Google Apps for Education and provided recommendations on accommodations for the application suite’s existing accessibility deficits.

Turner referenced ATI’s work in coordinating a CSU-wide effort to fully integrate accessibility requirements into the technology procurement process, emphasizing the development of “a number of important resources (e.g., standardized accessibility language for product solicitations and purchase contracts, Equally Effective Access Plan templates) and recommendations (e.g., adoption timelines, testing practices, and creating Equally Effective Access Plans).” He noted that, “This project is expected to significantly improve the ability of CSU campuses to ensure they are purchasing the most accessible, barrier-free EIT products.” He also mentioned that ATI plans to launch a “CSU Accessibility Technology Network” which would “leverage the campus accessibility experts across the system to provide shared services in several areas of accessibility,” such as product review and testing, vendor engagement, innovation in accessible instructional materials, and accessibility training.

In closing, Turner urged Congress to:

  • Require federal agencies to more strictly implement Rehabilitation Act Section 508 requirements for technology adoption within the federal government, particularly in relation to accessibility documentation, product testing, and public dissemination of testing results.
  • Mandate that federal grant recipients “ensure that technology products developed as components of these grants conform to Section 508 standards…”
  • Adopt the recommendations of the Postsecondary AIM Commission report, such as authorizing the U.S. Access Board to establish guidelines for instructional materials accessibility.

For more information, please see Turner’s written testimony in its entirety from the Senate HELP Committee web site.

This post is the third in a three-part series. View part 1 on the Department of Justice and part 2 the National Federation of the Blind.