While technology takes on a greater role in the college classroom, disability rights groups are seeking to ensure visually impaired students aren’t left behind.
Jordan Moon graduated from Arizona State University last year with a lesson that may outlast his journalism and political science degrees: how to get help.
As a visually impaired student, some assignments, like newspaper designs, were nearly impossible to complete on his own.
“There are a lot of times where materials are way too print-featured and graphic-oriented that you have no choice but to get an aide,” says Moon, who is legally blind. “Braille and software technology can only do so much.”
ASU’s disability resource center handled Moon’s academic needs but he had to rely on third-party vendors to purchase big technology items, such as a laptop or Braille note-taking device.
To remove that additional step, disability rights advocates are pushing to ensure that students with visual impairments do not have to seek out technology on their own to compete with their sighted peers.
“The burden of getting equal access now is falling on the student,” says Lauren McLarney, government affairs specialist for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). “It doesn’t have to be like that.”
The NFB is leading the effort through a draft bill that would mandate that the Access Board, a federal independent agency, create national accessibility standards for higher education technology. The regulations would make all technology used in classes accessible to blind students, preventing them from having to find alternatives through schools’ disability resource centers or outside vendors.
The NFB is working with Wisconsin Rep. Tom Petri, a Republican, to find common ground on the legislation and aims to introduce a bill in the House by the end of August. Petri’s office is still exploring the issue, said Lee Brooks, the representative’s spokesman.
“We are continuing to meet on it,” Brooks said.
As colleges have increasingly embraced digital learning, students with disabilities have faced many challenges due to inaccessible learning materials, a 2011 federal study found. Of the roughly 2.1 million U.S. college students with some type of disability, about 63,000 have visual impairments.
Currently, individual colleges set their own standards for technology accessibility.
At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., employees at its Assistive Technology Initiative review the accessibility of learning materials before classes start if visually impaired students indicate their enrollment.
But dealing with vendors to acquire comparable technology can be a difficult and lengthy process. Some will push back or do not understand the accessibility needs of students, says Kara Zirkle, the university’s IT accessibility coordinator.
“Sometimes we have to take more time to educate them,” Zirkle says. “It takes away time from testing the product.”
In 2010, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice sent a letter to college presidents saying that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits inaccessible education technology. However, it did not define accessibility standards, leaving the responsibility to manufacturers, universities and students.
Even if there is accessible technology on campus, it may not always be readily available.
Aaron Linson, a blind student at Indiana University Southeast, says the two campus computers with screen reading software are frequently taken by other students, so he brings his own to campus.
Other times, the school software is not up-to-date and is “literally unusable,” he says.
National guidelines, like those in the NFB bill, would integrate more accessible products into the classroom, similarly to how pen grips became widespread, Zirkle says.
“That was once an assistive technology, but now we don’t see it like that because everyone is using it,” she says.
The proposal, called the Technology, Education and Accessibility in College and Higher Education Act, has garnered support from other disability rights groups and the Association of American Publishers.