Digital education shouldn’t bypass disabled

Lauren Williams's picture
Thursday, September 26, 2013

As students return to school this fall, most will find a plethora of new technologies and virtual environments, on which their institutions have been spending millions of dollars to bring into the classroom. Yet many of these resources will be needlessly discriminatory. What would happen if an institution constructed a new state-of-the-art building but neglected to make it accessible to the disabled? People would rightly be outraged. Yet even as new technology-rich environments revolutionize the classroom, few make provision for people who are blind, dyslexic, or otherwise print-disabled.

Just like buildings, digital resources can be made accessible to all through good design and planning. Electronic resources should be inherently accessible; for most people, the zeroes and ones that make up digital content are translated for display on screens, but the same information can be transmitted audibly or connected to an accessory that puts it into Braille. Mainstream touchscreen devices like the iPad and iPhone are fully accessible to blind users right out of the box.

Yet, the vast majority of universities, publishers, and software creators do not embrace mainstream accessibility solutions. Technology giants like Google and Amazon are making immense efforts to put their products in front of students across the country, even though Google Apps for Education, Google Books, the Amazon Kindle, and the Kindle App for mobile devices have features that blind people cannot use. As a teaching assistant this summer, I was unable to successfully read, much less critique, student assignments that were submitted in the much-used Google Docs format. The disability community has repeatedly urged these companies — some of the world’s most innovative and talent-rich — to make their products accessible. But the pace of improvement has been disappointingly slow, even as educational institutions adopt these tools at a rapid clip.

Meanwhile, even though the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires postsecondary institutions to provide equal access, the burden of identifying and fixing access barriers falls to students. As a successful blind student who also works in higher ed, I’ve never started a semester with all of my texts and digital resources in formats that I can use. I have to seek out an alternative, which inevitably means delayed access to content that’s different from what my peers get on the first day of class.

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