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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/Access IT National Meeting Summary

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 have fostered a national dialog with key stakeholders from a broad spectrum of professions to discuss strategies calculated to improve the accessibility of electronic education for students, specifically those with disabilities. The first three national summit meetings were held in May 2004 in Washington, DC; in January 2005 in Orlando, Florida; and, November 2005 in Washington, DC. In each, consistent themes have arisen such as the need to ensure that standards and guidelines for accessibility and usability are understood and adhered to in education and industry. There has been a call for consistency in federal and state laws, and for increased awareness, education and outreach with respect to accessible information technology and educational technology in schools.

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 curriculum materials. The reasoning has been that as they come to understand why and how to develop content materials that are accessible to all students, they will build such materials and the marketplace will recognize their benefit. In our experience, however, focusing on supply side advocacy tends to work only in those instances where tool developers, education leaders, and other curriculum development professionals have a direct connection to disability (i.e., personal, family, or close friend/acquaintance). The marketplace has yet to recognize and appreciate their benefit.

A clear message from recent NCDAE meetings is that we need to make a more concerted effort to better articulate and improve consumer demand for such products. Simply stated, if disability and education fields are to be successful in increasing the availability of education tools, content, and curriculum materials accessible for all students, including those with disabilities, a demand approach is needed. This must include efforts in developing leaders, improving procurement processes, and conducting research that describes the most efficacious methods for affecting change.

In January 2006 in Orlando, Florida, a small working group convened to articulate in measurable terms the issues related to leadership, professional development, policy change, accessible electronic education tools, procurement policy, and implementation of these policies. The anticipated outcome was to develop a list of feasible actions through which NCDAE and its affiliates would synthesize their work over the past 20 months into a technical assistance document that would benefit school districts, as well as higher education in promoting accessibility initiatives for electronic education and information technology.  The working group identified the first steps in this ambitious undertaking-- activities over the next several years that would be most efficacious, effective, and useful to education entities. The three outcome statements generated at the January 2006 meeting are listed below:

  1. Develop an "ideas that work research summary" targeted to school boards, superintendents, the Office of Special Education Programs, Consortium for School Networking, the International Society of Technology and Education, and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Education Technology. The goal is to identify, summarize, and disseminate model K-12 and state agency policies wherein accessibility (i.e., accessible education tools, content, and curriculum materials) is included and defined for all students, including those with disabilities. While this information would be targeted to the K-12 system, it could also be used by community colleges and other institutions of higher education. It was believed that Access IT and NCDAE could engage in these activities leading to the logical follow-up of activity described in number two.
  2. Find and disseminate model policy implementation guidelines that realistically demonstrate how policy becomes reality. The product of this activity would be a white paper or technical assistance brief for State Education Agencies, Educational Service Agencies (regional education consortia), and local education agencies with specific emphasis on building administrators, vendors, and chief information officers in education institutions. WebAIM, NCDAE and Access IT would develop this for the K-12 system and attempt to develop a companion document for post-secondary education settings.
  3. Develop an organic information brief, residing on the Internet, to highlight existing K-12 legislation and litigation, including the positive and negative resolutions regarding electronic access to the general curriculum. This document's target audiences include school boards, superintendents, legal counsel in education institutions, and vendors, if it becomes an issue for them. We could develop a protocol for NCDAE affiliates and enlist their assistance in the data collection process. NCDAE and ATIA could take the lead in this activity. It was noted that mediation and due process proceedings may include the information we are looking for in this regard.

It was clear that the three outcomes listed above should be tied directly to the No Child Left Behind concept of adequate yearly progress (AYP), as well as to testing and access to the general curriculum. We must find a way to emphasize market demand to demonstrate how the education mandate is met by developing accessible, usable, and effective curriculum content in school settings. It was also suggested that we find a way to develop this information in a manner that is context-independent, so that it could be readily used by the K-12 system and higher education.

Additional lower-priority issues that were discussed included the need to engage in research that examines the use of accessible and effective curriculum and its effect on adequate yearly progress. If we are able to develop research summaries that address this issue, we may be able to declare that accessible curriculum can have a positive effect on NCLB. We also need to look at research describing technology as a required job skill and how technology affects student employment outcomes. We could consider doing joint research with Cornell University who is involved in employment and technology issues.

In the working meetings over the past 20 months we have identified specific materials to be developed for use by the field. We believe that the information gathered has focused research needs and initiatives to a point that we know clearly the kinds of information that will be of most use to education institutions throughout the United States.