Digital accessibility should be a K12 goal from the start

Schools can face serious consequences by failing to make learning materials accessible to every student

Editor’s note: CIO Hot Topic is produced in collaboration with CoSN.

Districts must provide learning materials that are accessible to all students. Digital accessibility—a challenging undertaking—involves making websites, learning platforms, videos, digital textbooks and portals available to students with physical, visual, speech, auditory, neurological or cognitive disabilities.

The consequences of failing to do so can be significant. In 2013, a civil rights complaint was filed against Public Schools of Northborough and Southborough in Massachusetts over accessibility of its website. Following an investigation, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued corrective requirements in 2014.

While there were no punitive consequences, the district was required to submit periodic progress reports, says Jean Tower, who was the district’s technology director at the time. “Having to work with the Office for Civil Rights made the process much more time consuming and difficult than if the district had been proactive” says Tower.

In October 2016, CoSN released a Digital Accessibility Toolkit in collaboration with the Center on Technology and Disability. The toolkit outlines the procurement process, benefits of digital accessibility, and legal requirements. The toolkit identifies eight key steps for achieving accessibility.

The first step is understanding federal and state accessibility laws. Technology company Cielo24 offers a guide to accessibility laws.

Next, district leaders should conduct a thorough accessibility audit to identify any non-compliant digital materials by using the WCAG 2.0 checklist of technical standards for accessibility. Finally, district leaders should develop an action plan for correcting accessibility issues and follow up with regular accessibility audits.

Tower has been the director of media and digital learning at Needham Public Schools in Massachusetts for a year and a half, and is leading the district’s digital accessibility initiative.

One challenge is getting buy-in among district leaders, but she has found it helps to explain ways that accessibility features, such as closed captioning on video, can benefit everyone.

Procurement also can be a challenge. When Tower asks tech providers to include accessibility language in their contracts, many understand but some companies balk, she says. “We have to make sure curriculum people look at the materials that they’re buying to make sure it’s accessible” she adds.

Despite the challenges, district technology leaders should be as proactive as possible. “If you make it accessible from the beginning, then you’re not trying to re-do materials that you’ve already created when you have a student who does need it in accessible format” Tower says.

For more information, visit the 2017 State & Federal Accessibility Guidelines and Laws for Education.

Leila Meyer is a freelance writer in British Columbia, Canada.

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