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.