Future Reflections        Winter 2012

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Action Required: Are Your Kids Using Technology in School?

Mark Riccobono at the podiumMark Riccobono

by Mark A. Riccobono

From the Editor: Is technology a blessing or a barrier for blind students? Sometimes it is hard to know for sure. In this article Mark Riccobono, executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute (the research and education arm of the National Federation of the Blind), examines the technological revolution in today's classrooms and calls for action to ensure that blind students fully reap the benefits.

Technology used to be something extra to help reinforce educational concepts. Its role in schools was confined to the school library and maybe a computer lab. Certainly it was not found in every classroom, and it was hardly in the hands of individual students on a consistent basis. But this scenario has been replaced by a technology revolution that has come so quickly many of us have been caught by surprise.

The father of a blind child recently posted the news to a parents' listserv: "Talk about a wake-up call! I learned that not only are iPads being piloted in the high school, but also in every school in our district. At my younger son's elementary school the whole fifth-grade class will be using iPads this school year. One of the other elementary schools in our district chose to pilot iPads at the kindergarten level! The whole district is getting wired to phase in the electronic era. This is no longer some futurist possibility--the e-wave is here and will likely roll into your district before you know it."

The e-wave is definitely upon us, but this article is not meant to brace you for yet another invasion of educational practices that will have to be worked around for blind children. It is, in fact, a call to action. Technology brings opportunities that blind students have never had before. However, it will take a consistent and insistent network of well-informed parents and advocates to ensure that these opportunities are realized.


In the days when the printed book was the primary instructional medium in the schools, blind children did not have immediate access to the materials their sighted peers were using. Fortunately, Louis Braille invented his tactile code for reading and writing during the nineteenth century. Over the years new technologies made it easier to transform the printed book into Braille as quickly as possible. Innovations included the development of Braille translation software, high-speed Braille embossers, optical character recognition (OCR), and desktop scanners. In the United States, an amendment to the Copyright Act permitted the reproduction and distribution of materials in specialized formats. As printed materials were increasingly produced digitally on computers before they were sent to a printing press, we were able to create systems for getting an electronic file of the printed work that could be transcribed into Braille. Today many stories and novels that are used in K-12 classrooms during the school year or for required summer reading are readily available for immediate download from WebBraille, a program of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS); or from Bookshare.org.

Due to the fact that each Braille textbook is composed of multiple volumes, students who use hardcopy Braille only have real-time access to one or a few volumes at a time during class. Ordinarily they don't have a full embossed copy of their textbooks at home, either. Teachers often teach chapters out of sequence. The blind student is at a serious disadvantage when the teacher suddenly skips ahead to a chapter near the back of the book and the student does not have the needed volume. When studying for exams, students may need access to chapters that are not at hand. The textbook glossaries and indexes are in completely separate volumes to which blind students may not have ready access.

Electronic books (e-books) can be read in Braille with a device such as the BrailleNote or PAC Mate. Unlike hardcopy Braille books, e-books are compact and highly portable. Electronic files containing the content of books are easily searchable, giving students ongoing access to material in all of the chapters as well as glossaries and textbook dictionaries. With a properly prepared e-book, the blind student easily can keep up with his or her sighted classmates.

Enter the technology revolution (or the e-wave). The once-familiar textbook, with its hundreds of pages between hard covers, is retreating into history. Today technology in the schools is no longer just a flashy enhancement or supplement, but an integral part of the curriculum. As school districts consider the adoption of new textbooks, increasing numbers are choosing digital versions in lieu of hardcopy editions. Sighted students use technology extensively to access core instructional materials. More and more educational content is delivered via the Internet or in other digital forms.

Technology is changing the paradigm of teaching and learning. It is also changing the paradigm for equal access to education for blind students, providing unprecedented opportunities as well as new challenges.

Challenges and Opportunities

Unlike the printed book, most technology is not inaccessible to blind students by default. Digital content starts in a form that is inherently accessible, and it has the potential to remain accessible--as long as the correct design is implemented. In other words, the old paradigm of adapting what you get is being replaced by a promising new paradigm where what you get is accessible immediately, with no additional adaptation. We sometimes refer to this paradigm with the slogan, "Same book, same time, same price." However, this slogan may be too limiting, as the "book" is only one piece of the vast digital landscape of webpages and other systems used to facilitate learning in the twenty-first century.

Unfortunately, current technology designs frequently exclude accessibility. All too often the schools fail to keep accessibility in mind when they purchase new technology. The result is a broken promise, the promise of equal access to education paid for with public funds.

A Legal Framework for a New Paradigm

The paradigm shift that accompanies the increasingly high-tech learning environment leaves some people feeling uncertain. Yet the laws that ensure equal access to education for students with disabilities remain fairly clear when they are applied to the new paradigm for digital education. Access to technology in the schools is more than a promising practice for students who are blind--it is a right protected by law. Digital-based instructional tools and materials used in the classroom must be user-friendly for blind students, and e-content must facilitate the same functions and benefits for blind students that it provides to students without disabilities.

On May 26, 2011, Russlyn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights for the US Department of Education, issued a "Dear Colleague Letter" to elementary and secondary education officials throughout the nation. This letter, along with an accompanying document listing frequently asked questions, makes it clear that schools must ensure equal access to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by emerging technology, and that all students, including those with disabilities, must receive equal treatment in the use of technology. The Dear Colleague Letter and FAQ documents were the follow-up to a letter released jointly by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice on June 29, 2010. All of this correspondence sprang from complaints filed by the National Federation of the Blind on behalf of blind students.

Below are some highlights from the correspondence. (The URLs for the original documents are provided at the end of this article.)

The Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) makes it clear that these documents are not new statements of law or regulation, and emphasizes that existing laws and regulations ensure current civil rights protections. Question 1 in the FAQ notes in part: "The DCL discusses longstanding law. Specifically, it addresses key principles of federal disability discrimination law: the obligation to provide an equal opportunity to individuals with disabilities to participate in, and receive the benefits of, the educational program, and the obligation to provide accommodations or modifications when necessary to ensure equal treatment. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, these legal standards apply to entities that receive federal financial assistance, including elementary, secondary, and postsecondary institutions. ... Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 (Title II), these obligations apply to entities of state and local government, including public schools."

As technology emerges there needs to be a shift from the accommodation model to one that embraces mainstream access. The FAQ goes on to say,

"For the purposes of assessing whether accommodations or modifications in the context of emerging technology, and, more specifically, electronic book readers, meet the compliance requirements, the DCL provides a functional definition of accessibility for students who are blind or have low vision. Under this definition, these students must be afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted students. In addition, although this might not result in identical ease of use compared to that of students without disabilities, it still must ensure equal access to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of such technology. The DCL uses the term 'substantially equivalent ease of use' to describe this concept."

The FAQ goes on to give examples and presents questions to be considered in implementing new technologies. "Sometimes accessibility is viewed either as a barrier to implementing new technology or as a secondary concern to the importance of staying on the cutting edge." The FAQ makes it clear that innovation and accessibility need not be mutually exclusive. "... the Department encourages schools to employ innovative learning tools. Because technology is evolving, it has the capability to enhance the academic experience for everyone, especially students with disabilities. Innovation and equal access can go hand in hand. The purpose of the DCL is to remind everyone that equal access for students with disabilities is the law and must be considered as new technology is integrated into the educational environment."

The original DCL (June 29, 2010) was written as a response to a specific set of events (the use of inaccessible e-book readers in several postsecondary institutions). The FAQ makes it clear that, "The principles underlying the DCL--equal opportunity, equal treatment, and the obligation to make accommodations or modifications to avoid disability-based discrimination--also apply to elementary and secondary schools under the general nondiscrimination provisions in Section 504 and the ADA."

The FAQ notes that nondiscrimination applies far beyond the set of circumstances around e-book readers. "All school programs or activities--whether in a 'brick and mortar' online, or other 'virtual' context--must be operated in a manner that complies with federal disability discrimination laws."

Next Steps

The two Dear Colleague Letters and the Frequently Asked Questions document are a great package of policy guides for school districts and state departments of education. However, guidelines are relatively meaningless to the blind student in the classroom unless we ensure that school district administrators and classroom teachers understand the equal access provisions under the law and work to make them part of the general practice of their school systems. The National Federation of the Blind continues to provide national leadership on these issues through policy, standards development, and use of the existing laws. Below are some of the things the NFB is doing at a national level to help advance this issue, followed by some of the local action that is needed by parents, educators, and others associated with the NFB. The race for equal access to technology is not over, and the outcome is not yet certain.

National Efforts

The National Federation of the Blind continues to protect equal access to education by:

Local Action Needed

It is important for parents and other interested parties to get actively involved in the systematic implementation of accessibility as the new technology paradigm takes shape. The local level for parental involvement includes the classroom, the school, the district, and the region, as well as the local chapter and parent division of the National Federation of the Blind. Parent advocacy on behalf of their own children will have an impact on other students, especially when parents work together.

Parents can make a difference by:

Sharing the DOJ/DOE Letters and FAQ's with key educational leaders and asking them what is or can be done to implement plans to ensure accessibility. As a parent or teacher you might share these materials with your school district superintendent, school principal, school board, technology officer, district director of special education, and the person specifically in charge of blind/visually impaired services for your district. It is important to note that special education services (and sometimes technology services) are not only delivered by a student's local school and school district. Frequently, school districts form consortia in geographical regions to provide and coordinate services. These consortia are sometimes referred to as education cooperatives or local education agencies. To raise awareness it is important to understand how services are coordinated and to know the key points of influence.

Finding out if your district has a technology committee. Suggest that the district establish a formal technology access subcommittee if one does not yet exist. The subcommittee can address the spectrum of access needs and offer to become an active member in the process of designing your child's future.

Meeting with district administrators or school board personnel to learn about your district's plans for the near and distant future. How is digital education going to be approached, adopted, and phased in over the next few years? Does the district plan to pilot electronic book readers? If so, which ones will be used? What are the plans for on-campus wireless access? Be sure to urge the district to think beyond the classroom. As this article was being finalized, the Baltimore City Public Schools announced a public/private partnership to rebuild school libraries and implement inaccessible electronic book readers for students to use. Why should students with print disabilities be shut out of the public school library?

Working with other members of the NFB at the local level to understand what statewide initiatives might impact the use of technology in the schools. The NFB has long been effective because of our collective action on key issues and our sharing of best practices and resources. Consider putting together a presentation with blind adults about the importance of access to technology, including examples of technologies that are and are not accessible.

Asking for a copy of your district's technology curriculum. Districts should have formal school-board-sanctioned policies available online. Share this curriculum with your child's teacher of blind students and make sure that clear and measurable technology goals are part of your child's IEP. The goals should emphasize age/grade-equivalent skills that sighted peers are also developing. Your child should be engaged in the same technology activities as his or her sighted classmates. Your advocacy for your child will help push accessibility in the technologies used in instruction.

Considering how your child's digital skills compare to those of classmates. Blind students should have ready access to screen-reading programs on campus and at home. The expectation should be that blind children develop Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and web-browsing skills at the same time and pace as their sighted classmates. Blind children also need to have age- and grade-equivalent skills with Braille notetakers.

Determining the accessibility of key web-based resources. Websites promoted for educational use are supposed to be accessible. Is your child able to access school calendars, teacher websites, publisher websites, class blog sites, and school newspapers independently to a high-level degree? It may be helpful to encourage uniformity within school districts by suggesting that all of the district's schools use the same grading and calendar programs.

Asking for a formal independent technology assessment from outside the school district, such as your state school for the blind, to ensure that technology skills and accessibility standards are being evaluated appropriately.

Encouraging early reading in all formats, including embossed Braille, e-books, and children's e-magazines. Be sure that your child has a Bookshare account, available free of charge to all students with qualifying print disabilities (<www.bookshare.org>).

Completing the National Federation of the Blind Digital Technology and Accessibility in Schools Questionnaire. The NFB is seeking information about accessibility barriers in the digital technology used by all students, teachers, and administrators in K-12 schools, universities, and colleges in the United States. This short online form helps us gather data about trends and accessibility, and it should be completed whenever you find new technology barriers.

Sharing what you learn through your advocacy with other members of the NFB so that we all can continue to make our advocacy efforts more effective.

The e-wave is here, but with it comes the great promise of mainstream access for students with disabilities. Powerful technologies that are built from the beginning with accessibility in mind are equipping blind students and blind professionals with the tools to maximize their talents and compete on terms of equality. We are in a time of transition. If the promise is to be fulfilled, we need to help the educators and administrators in our schools understand accessibility. By working together and sharing best practices, we will build a future full of opportunities with technologies accessible to all.


1. May 2011 Dear Colleague Letter to Elementary and Secondary Education Officials from Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali. <http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201105-ese.html>

2. The Frequently Asked Questions document published with the May 2011 DCL is available at <http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/dcl-ebook-faq-201105.html>

3. For more information, the June 2010 Dear Colleague Letter is available at  <http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-20100629.html>

4. National Federation of the Blind Digital Technology and Accessibility in Schools Questionnaire <www.nfb.org/nfb/DirectTechAccess_193.asp>

5. This topic is frequently discussed on two NFB listservs. Both are good places for sharing ideas and resources:  BlindKid, <www.nfbnet.org/mailman/listinfo/blindkid_nfbnet.org> and Professionals in Blindness and Education (PIBE), <www.nfbnet.org/mailman/listinfo/pibe-division_nfbnet.org

6. December 2011--The Report of the Federal Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities (while not targeting K-12 education, there is overlap in the related technology issues--some may be interested in this as further background).  <http://www2.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/aim/publications.html>

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