Accessible Software for Blind/Low Vision Students In-person and Online

Twelve months have passed since schools in this nation began closing due to COVID-19 transmission concerns. Yet throughout the nation, blind/low vision students face unnecessary barriers to learning when school districts mandate the use of software that is inaccessible (or poorly accessible) to screen readers.

Schools’ continued use of inaccessible software is even more egregious. More than a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Education issued clear and unambiguous guidance that schools may not mandate the use of software (or hardware) that blind/low vision individuals cannot use as effectively and efficiently as the software provided to sighted individuals.

Schools’ continuing refusals to make academic content accessible to screen reader users is difficult to understand. Schools (K-12 and colleges) have the legal obligation to make content accessible to screen reader users. This obligation exists under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). In other words, these legal obligations are not at all contingent upon the presence or absence of a student’s IEP.

Below, I set forth some quotations from U.S. Department of Education DCLs (Dear Colleague Letters) and related FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) documents issued in June 2010, and May, 2011. As you will note, even the most recent document was issued almost a decade ago. There is absolutely NO reason why schools did not have accessible software in place in January of 2020. Given the move to distance and hybrid instructional models, there is even less reason why so many continue to fail to meet their legal obligations to make academic content and other learning management tools accessible to screen reader users.

“Congress found when enacting the ADA that individuals with disabilities were uniquely disadvantaged in American society in critical areas such as education. Providing individuals with disabilities full and equal access to educational opportunities is as essential today as it was when the ADA was passed.” June 29, 2010, Joint Dear Colleague Letter from the United State Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division and the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.

“Just as a school system would not design a new school without addressing physical accessibility, the implementation of emerging technology should always include planning for accessibility. Given that tens of thousands of elementary, secondary, and post-secondary students have visual impairments and that the composition of the student body at a given school may change quickly and unexpectedly, the use of emerging technology at a school without currently enrolled students with visual impairments should include planning to ensure equal access to the educational opportunities and benefits afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of such technology. The planning should include identification of a means to provide immediate delivery of accessible devices or other technology necessary to ensure accessibility from the outset.” May 26, 2011, Frequently Asked Questions About the June 29, 2010, Dear Colleague Letter.

“The core principles …— equal opportunity, equal treatment, and the obligation to make modifications to avoid disability-based discrimination — are part of the general nondiscrimination requirements of Section 504 and the ADA. Therefore, all school programs or activities — whether in a “brick and mortar,” online, or other “virtual” context — must be operated in a manner that complies with Federal disability discrimination laws.” May 26, 2011, Frequently Asked Questions About the June 29, 2010, Dear Colleague Letter.

“The principles … apply to online programs that are part of the operations of the school, i.e., provided by the school directly or through contractual or other arrangements.” May 26, 2011, Frequently Asked Questions About the June 29, 2010, Dear Colleague Letter.

Thoughtful and responsible school officials in school districts that use inaccessible technology do not wish to continue violating the law and harming their students. They simply do not understand the devastating impact of these inaccessible technologies on their students.

BEAR welcomes the opportunity to work with these school officials to bring their schools into compliance with the law and to provide their blind/low vision students access to their education. Please do not hesitate to contact us.

Review of Guidance Issued by the U.S. Department of Education Regarding Students with Disabilities

See related blog: USDOE Causes Confusion as It Seeks to Spur Into Action “Frightened” School District Officials

See related blog: FAPE for Blind/Low Vision Students During School Closures


Since the COVID-19 pandemic gripped our nation, schools have sought guidance regarding education services to students with disabilities during school closures. The U.S. Department of Education has provided several documents and a webinar to guide schools on these matters. Below, please find a summary of the information provided to date.

When must schools provide education to students with disabilities?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, if the school is providing ANY “educational opportunities” to students in regular education, the school MUST provide “equal access” to those educational opportunities and must provide FAPE (free appropriate public education) to students with disabilities.

  • Note: There is disagreement regarding USDOE’s position that schools only have duties to students with disabilities when they provide educational opportunities to non-disabled students. I will not delve into this matter in this document.

What IEP services, accommodations, and modifications (SAMs) must the school provide?

Schools must provide all IEP services, including accommodations and modifications (SAMs), unless they it cannot do so. Schools should work with parents to find ways to deliver IEP SAMs, beginning with methods used before school closure and including methods such as drop off of materials, distance technology, assistive technology at home, etc. These can be incorporated into the current IEP as an amendment for which no formal meeting is held.

If the school and parent cannot agree, the IEP team should meet (via distance technology) to discuss providing IEP SAMs during school closure. Schools failing to provide required IEP SAMs may face liability for compensatory services once school resumes as well as extended school year (ESY) services if social distancing ends before schools reopen.

IEP and Re-evaluation Meetings

These meetings need not be in person, and there are no provisions for timeline extensions due to school closures. These matters will likely be very case-specific, but schools that fail to hold timely IEP meetings during the COVID-19 Pandemic may find themselves out of compliance when schools, enforcement agencies, and courts reopen.

Assessments and Evaluations

Some evaluations must involve “face-to-face assessment or observation” and that delaying these evaluations until schools reopen is valid. However, U.S. Department of Education explicitly directs schools, “Evaluations and re-evaluations that do not require face-to-face assessments or observations may take place while schools are closed, so long as a student’s parent or legal guardian consents.” This guidance is crystal clear.

Examples of assessments that need to be completed in person usually involve assessments of students around other students or in classroom settings (taking into account lighting, noise, etc.). However, reading assessments, technology assessments, mobility assessments, etc. may easily be performed using distance technology tools.

Communication and Collaboration are the Keys to Success

I completely agree with the USDOE’s promotion of collaboration between school officials and families. Undoubtedly, compromises must be made. However, students with disabilities cannot be abandoned by their schools. All parties must focus on what is important: providing FAPE by ensuring meaningful and accessible educational opportunities and individualized tools and instruction for the purpose of preparing students with disabilities for post-secondary education, post-secondary employment, and independent living.

Over the past few weeks, the experiences parents have shared tell the true story:

  • School districts that have been making good faith efforts to educate blind/low vision students before the emergency are proactively finding ways to provide accessible and meaningful educational activities for their blind/low vision students.
  • School districts that were not providing good services before the emergency tend to be the ones that are providing little or no accessible or meaningful educational opportunities for blind/low vision students—often while providing these opportunities to non-disabled students.

Next Steps for Families

I encourage families to take heart. Your children’s rights have not been altered by this emergency. Talk with your school officials. Share with them strategies that will work for your child. Provide them ideas and resources for bringing those ideas to reality.

If these efforts do not work, bide your time. Document everything you ask from and offer to your school district officials. Seek out other resources (including BEAR) for support and enrichment for your child and you. We are here for you, and we will not leave you or your child behind.

FAPE for Blind/Low Vision Students During School Closures

What kinds of blind/low vision student services CAN be provided via distance technology?

Many, many services can be provided this way. Distance instruction in each of the following has been done successfully during the COVID-19 emergency and for many years before the emergency began:

  • Academic core content
    • Math
    • Language Arts (reading, writing, spelling)
    • Social Studies
    • Science
    • Foreign Language
    • Music
  • Regular education enrichment content
    • Art
    • Physical Education
    • Music
  • Braille instruction
  • Accessible assistive technology instruction
  • Cane travel and orientation and mobility instruction
  • Related services:
    • Physical therapy
    • Occupational therapy
    • Speech therapy
    • Behavioral therapy
    • Counseling

Just because we have traditionally taught these subject in person doesn’t mean that we must always do so.

When I taught students, I did not touch them a lot. I gave hugs when requested, and I gave a lot of high-fives. However, for most instruction, body-to-body contact was not necessary. Instead, I engaged in a great deal of verbal description and allowed my students to actively participate in their own learning by encouraging them to explore their environments and educational materials as independently as possible.

There were instances where body-to-body contact was necessary. These involved mainly physical modeling for blind/low vision students and physical support for students with orthopedic disabilities. In a distance setting, I cannot provide those physical supports, but there are usually adults available who can. In school settings, I showed paraprofessionals and classroom teachers how to assist students using hand-under-hand and similar instructional strategies to help students understand new concepts and to provide students physical support to access materials. In the home, parents or other caregivers can receive the same kind of training.

Will changes be necessary? Probably. Many parents are working from home and do not have the flexibility to shift their work hours to fit the school schedule. In these cases, schools should allow teachers to modify their schedules to accommodate parental time restrictions. Given that no one is tied to a school building anymore, there are no good reasons to be tied to certain hours. So long as we work together and focus on our students, we can all be successful, and our students can be well-served.

What changes are really necessitated by distance technology for blind/low vision students?

For blind/low vision students, most, if not all, special education services, accommodations, and modifications (SAMs) should remain in place during school closures.

  • Textbooks should have been in place for months, and they should remain available. I’ve not heard of any school districts getting new textbooks due to the closure (and, if they did, they would presumably get accessible versions as well).
  • Worksheets and other instructional materials should have been made accessible throughout the school year. The production of accessible instructional materials should not be interrupted due to school closures, and home delivery of hard copy materials can be made.
  • Accessible assistive technology should have long been in place—in the school and in the home. For schools that have been meeting the needs of students with blindness/low vision before school closure, the transition to online education should be very easy.

In some cases, schools will not have had these SAMs in place before school closure. This is unfortunate, but it is not an excuse for schools continuing to withhold FAPE and accessible instructional materials from students with blindness/low vision. These schools must step up and remediate their past failures; they must not use school closures as an excuse to continue their pre-closure mistakes. Instead of avoiding these responsibilities, I encourage school officials to reach out for help.

USDOE Causes Confusion as It Seeks to Spur Into Action “Frightened” School District Officials

Guidance Issued to Encourage Schools to Provide Educational Opportunities to Students

On March 21, 2020, the United States Department of Education (USDOE) issued guidance directly addressing concerns schools have put forth regarding special education services. At the time, some schools were claiming that they could not provide ANY educational services to any students because they were unable to meet all the needs of all students with disabilities.

This attempt to scapegoat students with disabilities is as meritless as it is morally reprehensible. For more than three decades, school districts have known of their responsibilities to provide free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities. Many school districts have stepped up and met their legal responsibilities to all of their students, and our society has benefited from having young people enter adulthood prepared for post-secondary education, post-secondary employment, and independent living. Some school districts, however, have not met their legal responsibilities for years, and many of these attempt to focus on minimal legal compliance rather than on their stated mission: education.

Earlier Guidance Makes Schools’ Obligations Clear

In guidance published in September 2017, September 2018, and March 12, 2020, the USDOE noted: “If an LEA continues to provide educational opportunities to the general student population during a school closure, the school must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities, including the provision of FAPE. (34 CFR §§ 104.4, 104.33 (Section 504) and 28 CFR § 35.130 (Title II of the ADA)). SEAs, LEAs, and schools must ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, each student with a disability can be provided the special education and related services identified in the student’s IEP developed under IDEA, or a plan developed under Section 504. (34 CFR §§ 300.101 and 300.201 (IDEA), and 34 CFR § 104.33 (Section 504)).” Yes, this same guidance has been available to school administrators for more than two and one-half years.

The USDOE’s March 16, 2020, encourages school districts to utilize accessible technology to serve students with disabilities, “Accessible technology may afford students, including students with disabilities, an opportunity to have access to high-quality educational instruction during an extended school closure, especially when continuing education must be provided through distance learning.” The USDOE guidance is clear: Educators are expected to provide education and educational opportunities to all students.

With the USDOE’s March 17, 2020 press release and webinar, USDOE Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth L. Marcus gets straight to the point. “’OCR’s accessibility webinar is intended to remind school leaders at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels of their legal obligations to ensure that all students, including students with disabilities, can access online and virtual learning programs,’ said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth L. Marcus. ‘Students with disabilities must have access to educational technology utilized by schools, and OCR will continue to work to ensure that no student is excluded from utilizing these important tools.’”

USDOE Tries to Coax School Officials Into Doing Their Jobs

Despite the crystal-clear guidance USDOE had provided to school district officials for thirty months, some school officials still claimed they could not provide any education to any students because, despite two and one-half years of guidance, they were not prepared to provide FAPE or IEP services during a school closure and do not believe that they can do so in the coming weeks and months. The USDOE then issued even more guidance on March 21, 2020. The tone of this new guidance is concerning—it tends to focus on methods school officials may use to avoid their legal responsibilities.

While this guidance reminds school officials that many special education services CAN be offered via distance education, it also states that some services, including “hands-on physical therapy, occupational therapy, or tactile sign language educational services” cannot be provide via distance education. This is troublesome “guidance,” because many physical and occupational therapists have used distance technology to provides services for years—especially to adults in remote locations. Certainly, many PT and OT services for children can be delivered this way.

One example in the new USDOE guidance is troubling. The USDOE sets forth an example wherein it would be permissible for a teacher to provide educational materials to sighted students and offer only audio access to a blind student. However, a closer look at the language used in the guidance makes it clear that this is a narrow example that cannot be applied to all blind/low vision students.

Application of USDOE Blind Student Example Will be Extremely Limited

The “blind student” example in the new USDOE guidance reads as follows: “For example, if a teacher who has a blind student in her class is working from home and cannot distribute a document accessible to that student, she can distribute to the rest of the class an inaccessible document and, if appropriate for the student, read the document over the phone to the blind student or provide the blind student with an audio recording of a reading of the document aloud.”

Please note important conditions contained in this example.

  1. The teacher would need to be unable to “distribute a document accessible to” the blind student. This is actually a high barrier. Why is the teacher unable to do so?
    • In order to prove that the teacher is unable to provide accessible material, the school must answer several important questions:
      • What was the school doing before the emergency that allowed the student access to the material?
      • What about the emergency situation precludes the school from doing what worked before?
    • The school must prove that it is not creating the problem:
      • Is the teacher unable to provide the accessible material because the school is not permitting the teacher to access the specialist who can provide the material in accessible form?
      • If so, what is the reason for the school’s refusal?
      • Money? Bad reason, and it won’t pass the smell test—even in an emergency situation.
    • The school must also show why preventative measures had not already been in place:
      • Is it because the school refuses to allow the student to use school-owned equipment that would make the material accessible?
      • If yes, why?
      • Will the school authorize the purchase of such equipment to be shipped directly to the student’s home?
      • If no, why not?
    • Bottom line: The refusal of school officials to make basic attempts to provide accessible content is not excusable.
  2. The teacher may read the materials aloud or provide the student an audio recording ONLY “if appropriate for the student.”
    • If the student needs to interact with the text (like all the non-disabled students get to do), audio would likely NOT be appropriate for the student.
    • Come to think of it, if audio recordings are so fabulous, why not ditch the text completely and provide ONLY an audio recording for all students?
    • Bottom line: If non-disabled students need text to access the assignment, schools need to prove that blind students do not.
  3. This portion of USDOE guidance evidences a lack of understanding about accessible education options for blind students, especially with regard to distance learning.
    • The example of read-alouds is really quite behind the times given present technology.
    • Refreshable Braille displays can provide blind students the same access to text (in Braille) that non-disabled students receive (in print).
    • Accessible text-to-speech and screen reader programs provide blind students using audio far more control of the content by allowing them to vary speed and volume and by allowing them to move about the document independently and at any time they choose—just as non-disabled students can do with print.
    • Bottom line: It is unfortunate that the USDOE chose the example they did, but it certainly does not mean that schools can shrug off their responsibilities under federal law to every blind student by simply providing an audio version of materials provided to non-disabled students in text.

The USDOE has NOT Changed Requirements of Federal Law

Federal law (statutory, regulatory, and judicial case law) provides the best guidance in this and any other situation. FAPE must be provided. For students with IEPs, the school must follow the requirements of the IEP, including special education services, accommodations, modifications, and any assistive technology needed to access FAPE. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act require schools to provide deaf/hard of hearing students, blind/low vision students, and students with disabilities in the area of speech communication methods that are as effective as those used by non-disabled students.

These are no suggestions; they are laws. These laws set forth federally-protected educational and civil rights for students with disabilities. Schools have no right to strip students with disabilities of these rights and neither does the U.S. Department of Education.

One Parent’s Reflections: Online Instruction At Home Before COVID-19

Almost three years ago, my family made a major change in our blind child’s schooling. I  prepared to leave full-time employment, and we prepared to switch from a brick-and-mortar school to an online charter school—with an IEP (individualized education program) for a blind, dyslexic student with speech and other needs.

In the past few weeks, millions, perhaps tens of millions, of families have been forced into the position I chose. Additionally, more than 100,000 schools have been forced to move instruction from brick-and-mortar buildings to online environments.

I remember how challenging and overwhelming this move was for my family—and we chose it. I remember how Anna’s new school struggled for several months to provide free appropriate public education for her—and this school had been providing exclusively-online instruction for more than a dozen years.

My heart aches for children, parents, and educators forced into this brave new world. My family’s experience, though stressful, was positive in many ways. I fear that the current conditions and the natural stress caused by any change—especially an unwanted change resulting from a pandemic—is simply too overwhelming for children, families, and educators to find any benefits in the short-term.

My Mistakes (at least the big ones)

Did I make mistakes? Oh my, yes, I did! So many, many mistakes, and I had chosen the path I was on. Here is a short list of my early mistakes:

Feeling like a failure when there wasn’t a great learning experience within the first month or so of the change from brick-and-mortar to online instruction.

Change is hard. As parents, we must allow ourselves time to adjust. If we push ourselves too hard, we will burn out—and getting to the good place will take even longer. When parents are stressed, children pick up on that stress. They often blame themselves for the stress, too, “If it weren’t for me, Mom/Dad would be happy.” These feelings of responsibility for parents’ stress, combined with their own stress, can create or exacerbate anxiety, depression, and other conditions that make success in schoolwork even harder to achieve.

Expecting the online school to meet my child’s learning needs within the first month or so of school.

Before school started, the online school provided my child some of the technology needed. This proactive response led me to believe everything would be smooth sailing. My unrealistic expectations increased stress on all involved.

While my child’s educators had experience with online instruction, they had zero experience with accessibility for blind students. Curricular materials were inaccessible, and the school didn’t know how to make them accessible. Instruction continued for everyone, and my child was expected to complete all assignments, but my child was the only one in the class without access to the needed curricular materials.

Fear of irreparable damage

I was so frustrated that my child was getting behind despite spending plenty of time working on academics. I was particularly concerned about Advanced Placement Calculus—where everyone in the country takes a credit-determining exam on the same day in May. Week after week of inaccessibility meant that my child was losing weeks of preparation for that exam in comparison to non-disabled peers (who had perfectly accessible curriculum from day one).

I was so worried that Calculus simply wouldn’t happen because of inaccessibility. Calculus was a pre-requisite for other classes my child needed, and I feared that nothing could fix damage from the delays. My anxiety grew every day, and my child definitely picked up on it.

Letting the perfect get in the way of the good.

As my frustration grew, so did my demands on the school. My list of complaints grew by the day. I thought I was prioritizing my concerns, but I believe that school officials just heard a blob of complaints and demands that everything be fixed now. For a time, I believe they started to tune me out; after all, they didn’t know what to do.

In retrospect, I believe that a more nuanced approach would have been more successful. While every single concern I had was valid, school officials felt that they couldn’t do anything right. Over time, things improved, and more and more curricular materials became available, and the school began to provide my child’s IEP services (including accessible technology instruction, Braille support, speech therapy, and reading instruction). Looking back two and one-half years later, the delay seems a lot less important than it did at the time.

Failing to focus on my family

In order to provide the accessibility that was lacking, I worked fifty to sixty hours per week just to make my child’s materials accessible. I became very frustrated that I had quit working full-time for a salary only to move to working full-time for no salary. The “extra” time I would have with my child evaporated.

I blamed the school; the school was partially to blame, but so was I. In my zeal to make “everything right” with my child’s academics, I neglected everything else. We had planned to go to museums; there was no time for that. We had season passes to Hershey Park, but we only went once after school started. I chose to spend my time making her academic material accessible; it’s a choice I very much regret.

My Advice


Take a deep breath. Hold it. Keeping holding it. Hold it until you cannot hold it anymore. Do NOT breath out quickly. Very slowly, let that now-painful to hold breath go. Repeat.

This exercise can be calming, but it also provides guidance on how to handle extreme stress. If you breath out very quickly, you will want to breath in very quickly—to fill the void. When we are in stressful times, we get used to living with the stress. It’s easy to fear calm. After all, we tend to think that maybe we should be stressed; if we’re not stressed, we must be doing something wrong!

It can be difficult to avoid this cycle of stress, quick release, stress, repeat, but this cycle leaves no room for reflection, enjoyment, or peace. Instead, try to release the pressure slowly. When you do so, you have more control. You have time to think. You have the time to love. You have the time to live and enjoy what really can be.

Do what you can with what you have

When I taught in the public schools, I prioritized having materials and equipment with each student at all times, and my supervisors supported my efforts. Unfortunately, this is not universal. I have heard from many families that their children never had at-home access to materials and tools they needed, such as Braillers and braille paper, Braille books and worksheets and flashcards, accessible computers, or augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tools like switches and buttons to allow non-verbal students to communicate. School closed quickly, and many of these tools remain inside locked buildings just gathering dust while students need them.

Is this frustrating? Of course it is! However, frustration does not move us forward. The fact is: many cannot access the tools and materials our children need. Given this reality, we must find ways to move forward, but on a different path.

All is not lost; There is always a solution

When I reflect on how stressed I was about “losing so much time” when AP Calculus and other courses were inaccessible, I could kick myself. Once I took some time to breathe and reflect, I came up with a solution (actually taking the college class instead of worrying about the AP exam), and her online school paid the bill. In other words, we worked together and stopped blaming one another.

Back then, my child was the only one at her school being left behind. Making certain that she was ready for adult adjustment to blindness training and then college was the focus. During a global pandemic, timing changes. Everyone is “behind” what we expected because we never expected this.

Please know that I am not saying that education does not matter. I firmly believe that schools must be held accountable for the services students with disabilities need. What I am saying is document the problems, but focus on your child. Encourage school officials to work toward full accessibility, but don’t allow that pursuit to take over your life.

There are solutions, and there will be time (and an infusion of federal money) to implement them. This crisis has alerted many school officials of the need to prepare for the unexpected. Hearts and minds have changed, and post-pandemic priorities will undoubtedly change as well.

Prepare for the future, but live in the now. You won’t regret it.

Information about COVID-19 Letter from the U.S. Department of Education—March 12, 2020

In a document distributed on Thursday, March 12, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education addressed issues related to the provision of IEP services when schools are closing. Highlights are as follows:

If the school is closed:

  • If the school is not providing any “educational opportunities” to students in regular education, the school is not required to provide IEP services to students with disabilities.
  • If the school is providing some “educational opportunities” to students in regular education, the school MUST provide “equal access” to those educational opportunities as well as providing FAPE (free appropriate public education) to students with disabilities.
    • If the school determines that it cannot provide such special education services, the school should consider providing compensatory education services to ensure that all students with disabilities receive FAPE (free appropriate public education).

If the school is open:

  • If the student cannot attend school due to coronavirus infection, the determination is the same as with any extended student illness from school (missing more than ten (10) consecutive school days).
    • The school MUST hold an IEP meeting to change the child’s placement to homebound and change services, as needed.
    • If the student does not receive special education services for an extended period of time, the school should consider providing compensatory education services to ensure that all students with disabilities receive FAPE (free appropriate public education).
  • If the student cannot attend school due to a “high risk of severe medical complications,” the determination is the same as for actual student illness. If the student must stay away from school for an extended period of time (more than ten (10) consecutive school days):
    • The school MUST hold an IEP meeting to change the child’s placement to homebound and change services, as needed.
    • If the student does not receive special education services for an extended period of time, the school should consider providing compensatory education services to ensure that all students with disabilities receive FAPE (free appropriate public education).
    • PLEASE NOTE, however, that, pursuant to Section 504, the student may be excluded from school only if such exclusion is medically necessary. “The decision to dismiss a child based on his or her high risk for medical complications must be based on the individual needs of the child and not on perceptions of the child’s needs based merely on stereotypes or generalizations regarding his or her disability.”

You may access the entire document at:

Office of Civil Rights: Schools Must Not Violate Civil Rights When Responding to COVID-19 Concerns

March 17, 2020 OCR Press Release

On March 17, 2020, the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education issued a press release regarding online learning in the COVID-19 environment. OCR is the agency that enforces Civil Rights laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In this March 17, 2020 press release, OCR, “reminds decisionmakers of their responsibility in making distance learning accessible to students with disabilities, unless equally effective alternate access is provided. Online learning tools must be accessible to students with disabilities, and they must be compatible with the various forms of assistive technology that students might use to help them learn.” Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth L. Marcus also advised, “Students with disabilities must have access to educational technology utilized by schools, and OCR will continue to work to ensure that no student is excluded from utilizing these important tools.”

March 16, 2020 OCR Fact Sheet

The press release references a Fact Sheet (issued on March 16, 2020). In this fact sheet, the Office of Civil Rights recognizes that discrimination on the basis of disability (or race, color, or national origin) remains illegal discrimination—even in times of emergency. OCR further notes “Compliance with CDC’s recommendations should not create civil rights concerns.” The fact sheet also repeats the guidance issued on March 12, 2020 regarding school’s obligations to students with disabilities during this time which is outlined in this BEAR document (–Letter%20from%20DOE%20of%2003-12-2020.docx?dl=0).

March 17, 2020 OCR Webinar

The press release also contains a link to a short webinar available on YouTube. In this webinar, OCR outlines the information set forth above and notes, “Anyone who believes that a recipient or educational institution has violated a federal civil rights law enforced by OCR can file a complaint at” OCR has made it patently clear that there are no excuses—none—for public schools that choose to provide educational opportunities for non-disabled students.

What Does This Mean?

No excuses

The Office of Civil Rights, the agency that enforces civil rights laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), has unequivocally dismissed the idea that schools are exempt from these laws during the COVID-19 Pandemic. There are no excuses.

It is telling that OCR reiterated the March 12, 2020 guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education, “If a school district closes its schools and does not provide any educational services to the general student population, then a school would not be required to provide services to students with disabilities during that same period of time.” OCR has given  an “out” to schools that do not choose to make online learning accessible; that “out” is not providing distance education for any student. At the same time, OCR is forcefully reminding schools that, if they choose to provide online education to non-disabled students, they must ensure that students with disabilities have accessible means to effectively perform the same tasks.

Timelines for IEPs and Evaluations

Additionally, in its Fact Sheet, OCR references timelines for IEP meetings and evaluations.

IEP Meetings

OCR recognizes that IEP meetings need not be held in person, and it says nothing about schools getting timeline extensions due to school closures. These matters will likely be very case-specific, but schools that fail to hold timely IEP meetings during the COVID-19 Pandemic may find themselves out of compliance when schools, enforcement agencies, and courts  reopen.


OCR recognizes that some evaluations must involve “face-to-face assessment or observation” and that delaying these evaluations until schools reopen is valid. However, OCR explicitly directs schools, “Evaluations and re-evaluations that do not require face-to-face assessments or observations may take place while schools are closed, so long as a student’s parent or legal guardian consents.” This guidance is crystal clear.

When is Face-to-face required?

In order to assert that face-to-face assessment or observation is required for an evaluation, the school should NOT rely solely on past practices. After all, in most cases, all past instruction has taken place in a face-to-face environment. Assessments do not necessarily have to occur face-to-face now just because have been performed face-to-face in the past. Again, this will be a fact-intensive inquiry. However, schools using online learning platforms would need to describe why those would not work for the assessments needed. Parents and educators can help schools by recommending accessible online platforms like Zoom ( and learning which assessments truly require face-to-face meetings and which may be performed via distance.

Next Steps

Many parents and educators face school officials who are either uninformed about the law’s requirements or unconcerned about the law. Parents and educators may:

  1. Share these legal updates with schools (educators, administrators, etc.). If they don’t have the information, it is hard for them to act upon it. Help provide them the information they need.
  2. Be open and willing to negotiate. Yes, the law is clear. Unfortunately, laws take time (and, often, money) to enforce. Working together toward a common goal (like education), we can accomplish great things.
  3. Consider filing an OCR complaint. As noted above, OCR has explicitly welcomed complaints regarding these matters. Relevant links are found below.
  4. Consider completing the NFB’s Education Technology Survey: “The National Federation of the Blind is gathering information regarding the accessibility of educational technology used in our nation’s schools (kindergarten through graduate level). If you are a student, parent, teacher, or administrator who uses screen access software or other accommodations to participate nonvisually in educational programs or services, or if you are the parent, teacher, or administrator of someone who does, please complete this survey once a semester and contribute to this important research.” at

Important links:

Can the Magic Word “Optional” Relieve Schools of Their Duties to Students with Disabilities In Providing Out-of-school Materials and Activities?

Legal Requirements of Schools With Regard to Students with Disabilities

IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act—the law that provides for IEPs—Individualized Education Plans)

          The IDEA sets forth requirements relating to developing and implementing IEPs. As a preliminary matter, schools are responsible for following the student’s IEP. The student’s IEP should have been developed with the purpose of providing the student FAPE (free appropriate public education).

          When unforeseen circumstances occur (such as the current COVID-19 pandemic), the school might not be able to follow the IEP as it is written. For example, suppose the IEP requires the school to provide a student a quiet place to relieve anxiety from being in a classroom of peers. If the school is closed, this provision will not be relevant if the student is not in a classroom of peers. In contrast, suppose an IEP requires the school to provide materials in Braille. Even if the school is closed, this provision is not necessarily irrelevant. If the school provides materials to non-disabled children, the Braille reading student would require all materials provided in Braille in order to receive FAPE.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

          A school’s duty to students with disabilities is not limited to the IDEA. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act also provides protections for students with disabilities. In fact, Section 504 protections are available to, “any person who (i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, (ii) has a record of such an impairment, or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment” 34 C.F.R. section 104.3(j). Most, if not all, students with IEPs will also be eligible for Section 504 protections.

          Section 504 prohibits any eligible individual from being “excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or otherwise be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity which receives Federal financial assistance” 34 C.F.R. section 104.4(a). Note that this does not require the “program or activity” to be educational in nature. Discrimination against disabled individuals is the key question—not whether the discrimination involves educational or non-educational activities.

FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education

          Section 504 explicitly requires every “public elementary or secondary education program (that receives any Federal financial assistance) or activity shall provide a free appropriate public education to each qualified [disabled] person who is in the recipient’s jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the person’s [disabled]” 34 C.F.R. section 104.33(a). Moreover, the law explicitly directs that, “the provision of an appropriate education is the provision of regular or special education and related aids and services that (i) are designed to meet individual educational needs of [disabled] persons as adequately as the needs of non [disabled] persons are met” 34 C.F.R. section 104.33(b)(1)(i). In other words, the materials must be accessible and appropriate for the student with a disability.

Nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities

          As noted above, students are protected from discrimination in academic and non-academic activities and services. Section 504 provides that programs receiving federal financial assistance (like public schools) “ shall ensure that [disabled] persons participate with non[disabled] persons in such activities and services to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of the [disabled] person in question” 34 C.F.R. section 104.34(b). Thus, it is irrelevant if the activity or service is educational or not.

Americans with Disabilities Act

          Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also provides individuals with disabilities protection from discrimination by state and local governments (including public schools). The definition of disability under the ADA is substantially the same as under Section 504. However, the ADA has no provision for FAPE (free appropriate public education). While this may seem to limit the ADA rights of students with disabilities, it actually does not. In some instances, the ADA rights of a student with a disability actually exceed the student’s rights under IDEA and Section 504. In this document, those additional rights are explored in the next section.

Legal Requirements of Schools With Regard to Blind/Low Vision, Deaf/Hard of Hearing, Deaf-blind, and Non-verbal Students as well as to Students with Speech-related Disabilities Pursuant to Section 504 and the ADA

          In a joint letter on November 12, 2014, with accompanying frequently asked questions and a short fact sheet, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education addressed the effective communication needs of students for whom typical oral and/or written language is not as effective as they are for non-disabled students. This letter sets forth the legal analysis needed for schools to determine whether their actions comply with federal law.

          In the area of effective communication, federal regulations (both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA) require schools to provide auxiliary aids and services to ensure that all communication for students with the above-referenced disabilities students are as effective as for non-disabled students. While both the agencies and federal courts acknowledge that IDEA compliance might satisfy effective communication needs, they also recognize that compliance with an IEP does not necessarily mean that a student’s ADA right to effective communication has been met.

          Examples of “effective communication” include, but are not limited to the following: Braille, Nemeth Code (Braille math), Music Braille, screen reader-accessible electronic documents, enlarged print, sign language interpretation, computer-aided transcription services (CART), assistive listening systems, captioning, audio description, tactile graphics, screen reader software, computers, magnification devices, etc. Please note that the ADA directs public entities (including schools) that they must “give primary consideration to the requests of individuals with disabilities” when determining “what types of auxiliary aids and services are necessary” and highlights that, “In order to be effective, auxiliary aids and services must be provided in accessible formats, in a timely manner, and in such a way as to protect the privacy and independence of the individual with a disability” 28 C.F.R. § 35.160(b)(2). Thus, schools must take the effective communication accessibility preferences of a disabled student into account and cannot simply force its own preference upon any student with a disability.

Some Schools are Attempting to By-pass the Clear Language of the March 12, 2020 Letter from the U.S. Department of Education

“Optional” activities provided by the school

          Some schools are distributing (via electronic or hard copy print) worksheets, reading comprehension activities, other lessons to their students. Many of these schools take the position that the distribution of “optional” activities to their students does not trigger any duty to make these activities accessible to students with disabilities. Given the laws governing public schools (IDEA, Section 504, and ADA) and many private schools as well, are the schools correct in this claim?

          So long as the school receives federal financial aid, the answer seems to be a clear, “No.” Schools receiving federal financial aid may not “[d]eny a qualified [disabled] person the opportunity to participate in or benefit from the aid, benefit, or service,” and they may not “[p]rovide a qualified [disabled] person with an aid, benefit, or service that is not as effective as that provided to others” 34 C.F.R. section 104.4(b)(i) and (iii). Section 504 does not allow schools to avoid their legal obligations by labeling an activity or service “optional.”

Given that it is almost certain that the programs compiling and distributing these “optional activities” receive federal financial aid, it is equally clear that they may not discriminate against disabled students by refusing to provide them accessible versions of the worksheets, websites, etc. being provided to non-disabled students.

Schools sending families lists of outside providers for education/learning enrichment activities

Some schools are sending families lists of free online educational activities they might choose to use. Are these lists acceptable under federal law?

This question is not as clear. It can certainly be argued that the school is just providing information to families. However, if the outside resources the school is providing are inaccessible to individuals with disabilities, these lists still may violate Section 504. Section 504 clearly prohibits schools from “directly or through contractual, licensing, or other arrangements” engaging in discrimination, including providing “a qualified [disabled] person with an aid, benefit, or service that is not as effective as that provided to others” 34 C.F.R. section 104.4(b) and (b)(iii). If the outside resources the school list references are not as effective for students with disabilities as they are for others, it could be argued that the school is violating Section 504 by providing these inaccessible/ineffective resource lists to any students.

We Should Focus On Education—Not On Trying to Find Legal Loopholes

As a parent (of a blind 18-year-old), I am grateful that my child graduated from high school last June. I am also grateful that my child took a gap year. This winter, my child faced several medical issues and has been home with my husband and me through most of the COVID-19 crisis in this country.

As an attorney (licensed in Pennsylvania), I do not mind these legal gymnastics. I love advocating for students with disabilities, and I enjoy delving into the law as part of my advocacy.

As a professional educator (teacher of blind students), I shudder each time I hear of one of these issues. Educators are supposed to educate. We are NOT supposed to figure out how we might “get away” with purposefully refusing to educate some or all of our students.

To all professional educators (teachers, administrators, etc.): I encourage you to re-examine your actions in the past few weeks. Are you focused on the education of all students? Is it permissible to shove some students to the side for the sake of expediency?

I also encourage all educational administrators to review your institution’s legal obligations. It seems that many public schools are focusing on their IDEA responsibilities. The IDEA is certainly important, but so are Section 504 and the ADA. Unless schools make certain to adhere to their legal obligations relating to all three of these federal laws, schools may find themselves in violation of civil rights laws. Not only will these violations rob students with disabilities of necessary accessible educational opportunities, schools may find their budgets depleted by legal fees and, possibly, monetary damages. In education, we need to use our scarce resources to educate students—not to pay attorney’s fees. Let us work together to ensure that ALL students have access to ALL aids, benefits, and services of our federally-funded public schools. It’s not only the right thing to do; it focuses our scarce resources on providing education instead of trying to avoid doing so.