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Introduction

Every student has an equal right to education, including students with disabilities. It’s a myth that students with disabilities are not as capable as their non – disabled peers. On the contrary, an accessible educational environment ensures an inclusive and better learning experience for everyone, including students with disabilities.

The most important step schools can take towards inclusive education is ensuring that educational learning materials (such as printed and electronic text books, worksheets, course modules, curriculum materials etc., in print, audio, video, digital or graphic format) are accessible to students with disabilities.

In recent years there has been a shift from print-based learning to digital content. This transition has been accelerated by the pandemic which has necessitated the creation of accessible learning materials for students with disabilities in mainstream education.

Delivering quality instruction is clearly a challenge for most schools and school districts in the current circumstances. The magnitude of the challenge varies from well-funded schools with the technology capability, who are able to make the transition to digital much more easily than those which do not have the resources to do so.

Why accessible learning materials?

K-12 schools have an obligation to not only provide accessible learning materials as a matter of good policy but also to stand on the right side of law.

The Disability Standards for Education

The Disability Standards for Education 2005 (The Standards) were developed under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, and came into effect in August 2005. It requires that people with disabilities are provided with equal access to learning experiences. It states: “the curriculum, teaching materials, and the assessment and certification requirements for the course or program are appropriate to the needs of the student and accessible to him or her” and “the course or program study materials are made available in a format that is appropriate for the student and, where conversion of materials into alternative accessible formats is required, the student is not disadvantaged by the time taken for conversion”.

Americans with Disabilities Act

In June 2010, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice jointly published a “Dear Colleague” letter to postsecondary, secondary and elementary schools. The letter stated that if a particular mode of instruction is inaccessible to students with disabilities, it constituted a discrimination, prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

In 1990, the United States Congress reauthorized EHA and changed the title to IDEA. Overall, the goal of IDEA is to provide children with disabilities the same opportunity for education as those students who do not have a disability. The IDEA Act requires educational institutions to ensure equal access to curriculum and learning materials are provided to students who are blind or with print disabilities in alternative accessible formats in a timely manner. It also stipulates teaching practices that will accommodate all learners.

The most common student disabilities are:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Physical
  • Cognitive

The challenges faced by students with disabilities

  • Visual: Students with disabilities face challenges perceiving visual content.
  • Auditory: Students with hearing disabilities have challenges perceiving auditory content.
  • Physical: Students with physical disabilities have challenges with muscle and motor control.
  • Cognitive: Students with cognitive disabilities have neurological challenges processing information.

Here are some of the steps that benefit students with disabilities consume accessible online learning material

  • Visual: Students with visual disabilities benefit from text-based alternatives that they can consume more easily.
  • Auditory: Students with hearing disabilities benefit from captions, transcripts, and other alternatives.
  • Physical: Students with physical disabilities benefit from formatting digital content for assistive technology and keyboard navigation for web navigation.
  • Cognitive: Students with cognitive disabilities benefit from alternate formats that allow easier consumption.

The Need for Accessible content

Designing accessible content is imperative in K-12 education.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education, 11% of K-12 students aged 6-17 in the United States have some form of disability. Only 66% of these students graduate with a regular high school diploma and 18.5% of these students drop out before completing high school. Simply put, students with disabilities need and deserve accessible digital content.

Additional statistics to emphasize the need for accessible content in K-12

  • 94.7% of K-12 students with disabilities are educated in regular classrooms for half a day. These students cannot consume regular classroom content the same way as the other students with disabilities.
  • 70% of teachers feel that there is a massive gap between the resources they need for instruction and what they have.

5 Reasons Accessibility is critical for K-12 Schools

Schools and school districts utilize their websites to provide related resources and information to students, parents, and the wider community. Unfortunately, most of these websites are inaccessible to people with disabilities. Over the last several years, disability rights advocates and the U.S. Department of Education have raised expectations that all digital content on school websites must be accessible to people with disabilities.

It Is Ethically & Morally Right to Make Websites Inclusive

Schools have an ethical and moral obligation to make their websites accessible and inclusive. When visitors with disabilities visit the website to look for information, being inaccessible can deny them the right to equal access to information.

People With Disabilities Have a Voice and Are Not a Silent Minority

Schools and school districts must acknowledge the voices of their disabled student and teacher community or risk perpetrating the detrimental notion that they do not support individuals with disabilities.

Web Accessibility Will Increase Your Reach in Your Community

According to the CDC, 22 percent of adults in the United States have some type of disability. Schools could be missing one-fifth of their target audience if they do not optimize their site for accessibility.

Build Loyalty & Trust

Schools that follow-through on their commitment to build integrate accessibility into their websites gain an edge over their competition. Schools with accessibility as their core commitment gain more loyal visitors and repeat traffic and build brand trust. Those schools that are speaking to the 22 percent of the population who have a disability have accessible community engagement.

The Office of Civil Rights Set Regulations for Schools to Follow

Being accessible is not only the right thing to do, it is also required by law. The Office of Civil Rights is tasked with making education accessible for all students and school communities. It is imperative that schools and districts stay up-to-date on these laws and their regulations and meet the new compliance deadlines when these laws are updated. These rules and regulations are critical and must be taken seriously to prevent the school administration from receiving a formal complaint.

Risk of litigation

There has been a steady rise in complaints of discrimination against students with disabilities in K-12 schools under Title II and Title III of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.  Additionally, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires equal access to curriculum for all students, as well as teaching practices which will accommodate all learners.

Schools have to deal with the complaints being filed with the Federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The litigation is time-consuming, inflict irreparable harm on the institution’s brand, and incur substantial legal costs. 

Maintaining instructional materials, as well as all forms of information communication technology (ICT), so that they are accessible to all, is a fundamental initiative that can improve the quality of information to students and parents while reducing exposure to discrimination complaints.

codemantra with its award-winning AI-based technology can guide schools and school districts with an efficient path to remediate ICT and instructional materials making them accessible and ADA (section 504, Title II) and WCAG 2.0 compliant.

“Institutions that have an accessibility policy and dedicated resources, and who are acting in good faith are less likely to be sued. Institutions that are not implementing policy are vulnerable.”

 – Eve Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice

Conclusion

Everyone has a role to play in accessibility. The critical and often overlooked occurrence is the lack of ownership when it comes to thinking about accessibility. The fact is, everyone – from school administrators, principals, school district correspondents, staff, teachers, vendors have a role to play in digital accessibility. If accessibility is incorporated into learning content right from the start and not bolted on as an afterthought, it boosts learning for all and helps creates a community of inclusivity.

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