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K-12 Has Work to Do on Digital Accessibility, ADA Compliance

Advocacy groups such as CurbCutOS and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund say the digital revolution in education is leaving some students with disabilities behind, and progress will require assessments.

A paper with "ADA Americans with Disabilities Act" printed on it lying on top of other papers with lists of numbers on them. A pair of glasses and a red pen are lying on the top.
Even though K-12 schools had to adapt to remote and hybrid learning arrangements with the onset of COVID-19, most educators are probably unaware that providing equal access to digital education tools is still required by the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal and state laws, advocates say.

The pandemic accelerated the shift from print-based learning to digital content, necessitating the creation of accessible learning materials for students who have visual, hearing, motor and cognitive impairments, according to a September 2022 report from Codemantra, a Boston-based technology company that specializes in digital document accessibility compliance.

“Schools and school districts are increasingly contending with the pressing task of creating accessible learning content. The use of presentations, course content, supplemental materials, OERs, instructional materials, et cetera, in the K-12 education system has soared during the pandemic,” the report said, adding that 11 percent of U.S. K-12 students between the ages of 6 and 17 had some type of disability as of last September.

“The shift to digital work has allowed teachers who instruct kindergarten to the 12th grade to continue with classroom interaction. But it has also meant that teachers have to contend with the volume of content that has to be made accessible and maintain the quality to disseminate to students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers,” the report said. “For students and teachers with disabilities, the importance of accessible learning content has become more crucial than before.”

With summer break over and classes now resuming this month or next, organizations that advocate for digital accessibility in education will be pushing for improvements in the months ahead.

Cheryl Theis, education advocate for the civil rights law and policy center Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, said the state of digital access across the nation “is in its infancy” because so many school districts and communities still haven’t cleared the first hurdle — high-speed Internet access.

In California, where Theis is based, the most common compliance mistake is failing to conduct comprehensive evaluations, which include checklists for technology used to assist those with disabilities, Theis said. Moreover, she added, teachers are hesitant to record lectures for students learning remotely.

“It helped during COVID, so why not now?” Theis said, illustrating her point with the example of a high school student who suffered from migraine headaches who could not look at a screen or tune into classes live at times, but still depended on recorded audio. “Teachers say they don’t like being recorded because of liability concerns.”

Many of the other challenges are centered around remote learning. Visually impaired children have struggled with screens, but adjusting font sizes is a simple fix that should be communicated to the teachers, parents and students. But if there is no system in place at the local level enforcing the required evaluations — let alone requiring staff to familiarize themselves with the provisions of the ADA, the Disability Standards for Education, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — children will continue to be shortchanged, Theis said.

She said schools and students may already have the tools to make visual and audio adjustments, including voice-enabled software, so it’s really just a matter of school districts evaluating students for disabilities and taking inventory of what tools they have and what training and staff development is needed.

“Early intervention matters,” Theis said. “We need a universal system.”

CurbCutOS is an advocacy agency that specializes in digital accessibility. CEO Mark Pound estimates that more than 7 million students are struggling with education technology in the classroom or at home, because the vast majority of websites are designed without digital accessibility in mind. These deficiencies range from inconsistent speech recognition functions to color contrast problems, to flashing screens that can cause seizures.

Pound echoed Theis’ sentiments, noting schools need to take inventory and assess the equal-access capabilities of all their tools, especially learning management systems and digital textbooks.

Pound said his organization, which works with private and public entities across the U.S., is unaware of any enforcement measures other than lawsuits. Schools are expected to self-assess and self-audit, he said, but there’s no standardized system with which outside agencies can assess and monitor schools’ progress and render penalties for non-compliance. Under current laws, change only comes after someone complains or sues. The U.S. Department of Justice has put K-12 schools on notice of the law, he said, but that’s not enough to bring change.

Pound said he has done numerous interviews on this issue with national media outlets and, just like teachers and school officials, they say they have never heard the words “digital accessibility” before. He plans to continue raising public awareness across the country during the school year.

“This is a new journey,” he said. “It’s not something where you just check a box and you’re done,” Pound said. “Schools need to take this on.”
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.