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NCDAE: The National Center on Disability and Access to Education

Improving web accessibility in higher education
through system-wide reform

NCDAE and AccessIT Discussion Springboard Paper

January 18, 2006

Over the past three years, the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE) has brought together advocates, education professionals, government representatives, business leaders, and others for a series of national summit meetings, web casts, and other activities. These activities were designed to create a national dialogue with key stakeholders from a broad spectrum of fields to discuss strategies calculated to improve the accessibility of electronic education for students, specifically those with disabilities.

The first summit, held in May of 2004, sponsored two simultaneous discussion strands: technology and policy (see for the May 2004 summit summary information). The technology group was comprised of nearly two dozen national leaders in education technology. They identified the following issues with accompanying tasks:

  1. Standards and guidelines for accessibility and usability;
  2. Research and development;
  3. Awareness, education and outreach;
  4. Systematic change/policy implementation; and,
  5. Lack of accessible products (e.g., software).

The policy issue interest group identified five similar areas:

  1. Model policy and model policy research;
  2. Modification of existing distance learning policies;
  3. Federal and state laws;
  4. Industry; and,
  5. Public awareness.

Discussion at the second summit, January 19, 2005, reviewed the national summit workshop notes from the May meeting to improve their clarity of purpose, and to develop the discussion themes of four Communities of Interest: (a) voice of accessibility, (b) standards harmonization, (c) procurement policy, and (d) accessible evaluation and assessment (see for the January 2005 summit summary information). A common theme throughout was the need to find a way to improve and focus demand for accessible education tools, content, curriculum and services. Whether achieved through laws, standards harmonization, improved public awareness, policy research, or technology research and development, a similar question arose: how do we make a business case for accessibility? Or, how do we state the market demand in terms understood and appreciated by those who develop and profit from the sale of education content, curriculum and other related products?

In November 2005, NCDAE and AccessIT held a third national meeting in which the previous summit information was used as a starting point for discussion. Discussion centered around five questions: (a) How are we influencing education technology and education-based information technology policies, plans and standards? (b) What are key stakeholders doing (e.g., industry, educators and disability advocates)? (c) What leadership characteristics or variables are required for change? (d) How are we building, growing or fostering those characteristics (leadership capacity)? and, (e) What are the most efficacious variables for making change (leveraging existing resources)? The discussion focused specifically on how to improve the accessibility of electronic resources and curriculum at the K-12 level.

Throughout NCDAE discussions over the past several years, the general consensus has been that in order to make systemic change, advocates must identify and work from key leverage points to ensure the adoption of new ideas, concepts, and practices. These points may include key people, policies or processes. For example, recent national strategy discussions have focused on improving advocacy with education tool developers, education leaders, and others involved in the development of education curriculum materials. The reasoning has been that as these individuals/groups come to understand why and how to develop content materials that are accessible to all students, the marketplace will recognize their benefit. This supply-side (using an economics metaphor) advocacy has focused on appealing to the sense of equality, justice and fairness of those charged with the creation of education content and encouraging them to meet the needs of all students, including those with disabilities. Though empirical data to either support or debunk this advocacy strategy is not available, our discussions over the past several years indicate that this strategy may not be generally effective. In our limited experience we've found that it tends to work only in those instances where tool developers, education leaders or other curriculum development professionals have a direct connection to disability (i.e., personal, family or close friend/ acquaintance). Even then, the market demand is minimal. A clear message from our recent NCDAE meetings is that we need to make a more concerted effort to articulate and increase the demand for such products.

Simply stated, if disability and education fields are to be successful in increasing the availability of accessible education tools, content and curriculum materials for all students, including those with disabilities, a demand approach needs to be taken. This would include efforts in developing leaders, improving procurement processes and conducting research that describes the most efficacious methods for effecting change. Given the limited time available at the January 2006 national discussion follow-up meeting, we've elected to concentrate on just one of these efforts: procurement processes. The rationale for this present focus is based on the relative success of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act at articulating a clear market demand.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act became effective in June 2001. The standards set forth in Section 508 directly affected the demand of federal agencies that purchase electronic and information technology requiring that vendors meet these standards in order to do business in the federal marketplace. This process has been effective to the degree that those involved in the federal purchasing process have become knowledgeable about what those standards mean. From this position of knowledge they can then participate in key decisions regarding procurement of electronic and information technology described by those standards. In other words, the demand side of the procurement equation includes individuals who are knowledgeable and who fill procurement decision-making roles. The ability of businesses to push or supply Section 508 compliant products would likely not work without having a knowledgeable demand from procurement officials.

During this working meeting, we will attempt to operationalize each of the principles listed below in an effort to provide constituents and stakeholders from across the nation with a set of guidelines and/or activities that they can undertake to better articulate the demand for accessible curriculum. This may require a concurrent set of guidelines to articulate the demand for electronic education tools and related materials. However, our time is limited. If time permits, we may address some of the other areas identified in the November 2005 meeting, which include:

Accessible Curriculum: "Create the Demand" Principles

This group should focus on the following question:

How will students with disabilities and/or other learning differences achieve the state/local goal or curriculum standard using this curriculum method, material and/or equipment?

The focus of this question should be on the effectiveness of the curriculum method, material and/or equipment, rather than on accessibility for students with disabilities.