Educational Technology: Assuring Access for Students with Disabilities

"We know, purely and simply, that every single child must have access to a computer, must understand it, must have access to good software and good teachers and to the Internet, so that every person will have the opportunity to make the most of his or her own life." --- President Clinton (emphasis added)

" . . . commitment to free quality education for all has been a bedrock principle of our nation. The Internet, in time, will be the blackboard of the future. Knowledge of technology is increasingly essential for life and work. How can we allow some children to have access and leave others out?" --- Secretary Riley (emphasis added)

How do barriers to educational technology access for students with disabilities differ from access barriers for all other students?

Common barriers to educational technology access for all students include costs associated with obtaining equipment, difficulty "connecting" rural locations, lack of funding to train personnel to utilize technology, and so on. For students with disabilities, more basic access barriers are encountered in interacting with the educational technology product. Motor disabilities may limit students ability to use a standard keyboard, the standard monitor display may not be usable by students with visual impairments, and the speech output of an instructional program may not be understood by a student with a hearing impairment. Alternative input and output features are frequently needed by students with disabilities to allow them to interact with the educational technology on equal basis with other students. Such features are critical for educational technology "product access" just as ramps and lever door handles are critical for facility access.

How can "product access" for students with disabilities be delivered?

Access for students with disabilities can either be accomplished through "built-in" features or ones that are "added-on" to the product. Built-in access features are usually more robust, stable and cost-effective than add-on. Examples of a built-in access features would be keyboard adjustments that allow for sequential rather than simultaneous keystrokes and software that provides the capacity to adjust the size of the visual display output to a variety of enlargements. Unfortunately, not all access features are available built-in and as a result compatibility with add-on access products will also be necessary to assure full access. Examples of compatibility with an add-on access products would be the capacity to accept input from alternative keyboards and software that supports the stable operation of "screen-readers", products that transform visual display into speech with additional software and a speech synthesizer. Another illustrative comparison of built-in and add-on access can be seen with television captioning decoders. All recently manufactured televisions have a decoder chip built-in, thus eliminating the need for an expensive add-on device. As universal access becomes more and more accepted in the development of new products, built-in access should become more readily available.

Do these input and output alternatives help only students with disabilities?

No, many access features provide benefits for individuals without disabilities. Just as curb cuts accommodate individuals pushing shopping carts, baby strollers, etc. in addition to providing access for individuals who use wheelchairs, many educational technology access features support students with a variety of learning needs. Alternative input options allow preschool children to use a computer effectively when they do not yet have the motor skills to use a standard keyboard. Voice output systems not only provide access for individuals who cannot see text on a screen display, but also support effective technology use by individuals with limited reading skills. Text display of speech output can foster literacy development in addition to providing access for individuals who cannot hear.

What are a school's responsibilities to provide access for students with disabilities?

The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act require schools to provide equal access to educational technology for students with disabilities. If technology is purchased that cannot be made accessible, it will have to be retro-fit, replaced or some other adaptation will have to made so that a student with a disability can have equal access to the technology as needed. While all technology within a school does not need to be fully accessible to students with every type of disability, technology should be readily available that can provide access for all types of disabilities. A notable exception is in those instances where the technology is the "sole provider" of information or services, e.g. an electronic library system or a single station that provides Internet access. If a system is a sole provider, it must either be fully accessible or be able to be made fully accessible to assure equal access.

How can schools fund educational technology access for students with disabilities?

Significant federal appropriations are currently available to support the purchase of educational technology. These general education technology dollars can and should be used to procure accessible educational technology, including technology with built-in access, technology that is compatible with add-on access products, and add-on access products themselves. These federal dollars should not be used to purchase inaccessible technology with the expectation that some "special" funding source has responsibility for making the products accessible. When expending federal educational technology funds, built-in access and compatibility with add-on access products should be considered as a condition for product purchase. In addition, federal dollars should be used to purchase add-on access products as needed to ensure full accessibility for all students, including those with disabilities.

How does a school know if educational technology products are fully accessible?

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as looking for the "access seal" or access assurance statement in the product marketing material. Many educational technology products on the market today have not been designed to provide or support full access. There is currently no independent review entity that provides buyers with information regarding the accessibility of educational or other types of technologies. Thus schools will need to add access considerations to the list of factors they use to make decisions about the purchase of educational technology. Best practice and common sense would recommend that schools procure only products that are or can be made fully accessible.

Are there standards that can be used to review educational technology products for accessibility?

Currently there are no mandated access standards that educational technology products must meet prior to becoming available for purchase. However, attached to this document are two examples of such standards. Attachment A is a set of basic questions that can be used by schools to review products for accessibility. Attachment B are the proposed rules for Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which includes requirements for product accessibility and requirements for compatibility with add-on access products. Either of these standards could be used to conduct a review of educational technology products for accessibility.

How can schools review educational technology for access?

Once a set of access standards has been identified, a number of techniques can be used to review educational technology for adherence to those standards. Products and/or product specifications can be directly reviewed by school staff. This review can be done by staff who have familiarity with the access standards and may entail pooling the expertise of special educators and educational technology specialists. Community resources, individuals who are user of adaptive technology and are familiar with access features, can be asked to assist in product reviews. In addition, vendors can be asked to provide a review of their products in reference to the access standards, or vendors can be asked to demonstrate how their products conform to the access standards. Asking vendors to review or demonstrate the accessibility of their products provides an added benefit of increasing awareness to access issues that can be addressed by the manufacturer during future product development.

Attachment A: Access Questions

1.0 BASIC SYSTEM ACCESS

1.1 What is the memory capacity of the system to efficiently operate current and projected hardware and software including adaptations? Substantial access would include memory needed to run standard applications plus additional memory needed to accommodate adaptations.

1.2 What is the processing capacity of the system to efficiently operate current and projected hardware and software adaptations? Substantial access would include processing speed needed to run standard applications plus additional memory needed to accommodate adaptations.

1.3 What is the capacity of the architecture of the system to allow for expansion, such as the addition of specialized cards, memory chips, and port connections? Substantial access would include the availability of open ports, slots, etc. to meet adaptation needs.

1.4 What is the capacity of the architecture of the system to allow for ease of physical access to features such as on/off switches, volume, contrast, brightness controls, and disk/CD-ROM drives? Substantial access would include controls on the front of the system or accessible from the control panel.

1.5 What is the capacity of the individual user station in a network system to provide adaptations, both built-in and add-on access features? Substantial access would include network ability to deliver adaptations from the server and independently through the end unit.

1.6 What is the capacity of the cabling system to transmit a variety of electronic information? Substantial access would include cabling able to deliver multiple types of electronic information, e.g. adaptations of visual information to auditory and auditory to visual.

2.0 INPUT ACCESS

2.1 What is the capacity of the operating system, application and/or instructional software to deliver keyboard and mouse adjustments, internally or as an add-on? Substantial access would include:

2.2 What is the capacity of the operating system, user application and/or instructional software to accept input from alternative keyboards and alternative pointing devices? Substantial access would be efficient utilization of alternative input devices to transmit any valid input available from the standard keyboard and mouse.

2.3 What is the capacity of the operating system, user application and/or instructional software to accept input from a voice dictation system? Substantial access would be efficient utilization of speech input to transmit any valid input from the standard keyboard and mouse with effective user control.

3.0 OUTPUT ACCESS

3.1 What is the capacity of the operating system, user application and/or instructional software to deliver monitor display adjustments, internally or as an add-on? Substantial access would include:

3.2 What is the capacity of the operating system, user application and/or instructional software to provide visual information, text and other visual images, through speech output? Substantial access would include:

3.3 What is the capacity of the operating system, user application, and/or instructional software to provide visual information, text and other visual images, through tactile output? Substantial access would include:

3.4 What is the capacity of the operating system, user application, and/or instructional software to provide auditory information, speech or other sound signals, through enhanced output and visual display? Substantial access would include:

3.5 What is the capacity of the application and/or instructional software to provide adjusted and alternative hard copy output such as enlarged, enhanced and spatially manipulated print and images, and braille or other tactile imaging? Substantial access would include:

4.0 RELATED ACCESS

4.1 What is the capacity of the system to provide documentation or associated materials in accessible form? Substantial access would be the availability of all associated materials in alternative formats such as braille, text-file, audio-cassette, large print, etc.

4.2 What is the equity of distribution and the physical accessibility of buildings and rooms in which educational technology is placed, including buildings and rooms that are electronically "connected"? Substantial access would be placement of educational technology equitably across all program types, including programs serving students with disabilities, and placement of educational technology in fully accessible (ADAAG) facilities.

4.3 What is the physical accessibility of end user structures such as computer stations, desks, tables, etc. and the accessibility of adaptations that are not permanently fixed to a particular computer station? Substantial access would include availability of physical structures that can meet the needs of students with disabilities and ready access (within the general area rather than in another building) to the adaptations needed for a particular student.

4.4 What is the capacity of educational technology product vendors to provide initial and on-going technical support regarding system access for students with disabilities? Substantial access would be availability of vendor support to assist with operation of built-in access features specific to their product and to assist with operation of their product with add-on access systems.

Attachment B: Telecommunications Act

Proposed Requirements for Accessibility

REQUIREMENTS FOR PRODUCT ACCESSIBILITY

1193.33 Redundancy and selectability.

Telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment shall provide redundancy such that input and output functions are available in more than one mode. Alternate input and output modes shall be selectable by the user.

1193.35 Input, controls, and mechanical functions.

Input, controls, and mechanical functions shall be locatable, identifiable and operable through at least one mode that complies with the following:

  1. Operable without vision. Functions shall not require user vision.
  2. Operable with low vision. Functions shall not require user visual acuity better than 20/70 and shall not rely on audio output.
  3. Operable with little or no color perception. Functions shall not require user color perception.
  4. Operable without hearing. Functions shall not require user auditory perception.
  5. Operable with limited manual dexterity. Functions shall not require fine motor control or simultaneous actions.
  6. Operable with limited reach and strength. Functions shall be operable with limited reach and strength.
  7. Operable without time-dependent controls. Functions shall not require a sequential response less than three seconds. Alternatively, any response time may be selected or adjusted by the user over a wide range.
  8. Operable without speech. Functions shall not require speech.
  9. Operable with limited cognitive skills. Functions shall minimize the cognitive, memory, language and learning skills required of the user.

1193.37 Output, displays and control functions.

  1. Voice telecommunications shall comply with (b)(9) and (b)(10) of this section.
  2. All information necessary to operate and use the product, including text, static or dynamic images, icons, or incidental operating cues, shall be provided through at least one mode that complies with the following:

  1. Availability of visual information. Information which is presented visually shall also be available in auditory form.
  2. Availability of visual information for low vision users. Information which is provided through a visual display shall not require user visual acuity better than 20/70, and shall not rely on audio.
  3. Access to moving text. Text, other than text output of a TTY, which is presented in a moving fashion shall also be available in a static presentation mode at the option of the user.
  4. Availability of auditory information. Information which is provided in auditory form shall be available in visual form and, where appropriate, in tactile form.
  5. Availability of auditory information for people who are hard of hearing. Information which is provided in auditory form shall be available in enhanced auditory fashion (increased amplification or increased signal-to-noise ratio).
  6. Prevention of visually-induced seizures. Flashing visual displays and indicators shall not exceed a frequency of 3 Hz.
  7. Availability of audio cutoff. Products which use audio output modes shall have an industry standard connector for headphones or personal listening devices (e.g., phone-like handset or earcup) which cuts off speakers when used.
  8. Non-interference with hearing technologies. Products shall not cause interference to hearing technologies (including hearing aids, cochlear implants, and assistive listening devices) of the user or bystanders.
  9. Hearing aid coupling. Products providing auditory output by an audio transducer which is normally held up to the ear shall provide a means for effective wireless coupling to hearing aids.
  10. Availability of enhanced audio. Products shall be equipped with volume control that provides adjustable amplification ranging from 18-25 dB of gain.

REQUIREMENTS FOR PRODUCT COMPATIBILITY

1193.41 Compatibility.

. . . telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment shall be compatible with peripheral devices and specialized customer premises equipment commonly used by individuals with disabilities to achieve accessibility, and shall comply with the following provisions, as applicable:

  1. External electronic access to all information and control mechanisms. Information needed for the operation of products (including output, alerts, icons, on-line help, and documentation) shall be available in a standard electronic text format on a cross-industry standard port and all input to and control of a product shall allow for real time operation by electronic text input into a cross-industry standard external port and in cross-industry standard format. The cross-industry standard port shall not require manipulation of a connector by the user. Products shall also provide a cross-industry standard connector which may require manipulation.
  2. Connection point for external audio processing devices. Products providing auditory output shall provide the auditory signal at a standard signal level through an industry standard connector.
  3. Non-interference with hearing technologies. Products shall not cause interference to hearing technologies (including hearing aids, cochlear implants, and assistive listening devices) of the user or bystanders.
  4. Compatibility of controls with prosthetics. Touchscreen and touch-operated controls shall be operable without requiring body contact or close body proximity.
  5. TTY connectability. Products which provide a function allowing voice communication and which do not themselves provide a TTY functionality shall provide a standard non-acoustic connection point for TTYs. It shall also be possible for the user to easily turn any microphone on and off to allow the user to intermix speech with TTY use.
  6. TTY signal compatibility. Products providing voice communication functionality shall be able to support use of all cross-manufacturer non-proprietary standard signals used by TTYs.