Don’t Be a Barrier: Be Accessible NOW
The COVID-19 outbreak has prompted many educational institutions to implement protocols for remote learning as a viable alternative to closing their doors altogether. Blind students, with and without additional disabilities, risk having their ongoing educational needs swept under the rug as a result. Over the past two decades, we know the 21st-century interactive classroom has dramatically evolved, but we also know the accessibility of instructional materials has continued to be viewed as an afterthought. Students are often forced to react due to the dismissal of proactive approaches from education institutions. The solutions exist, but must be prioritized. Taking this into consideration, I invite you to lace up your gym shoes and join me for a brief glance into my high school years.
I’ll never forget the day I received my first computer with screen access technology. I was about to turn fifteen and start my freshman year of high school. As a blind student, I knew that screen access software could provide me with equal access to information that my sighted classmates received visually. Fueled by excitement and one too many fruit snacks, I went about looking at various learning websites related to some of my future classwork. I found that many of the websites, particularly those related to my foreign language classes were not accessible through the use of screen access technology. I could not read, navigate, or interact with information on these websites. Little did I know that those websites were just the beginning of my journey into the world of inaccessible instructional materials. While I was mostly fortunate to have advocates and educators who understood the relative ease of creating accessible materials and the importance of blind students having equal access to such materials during my K-12 and postsecondary career, I acknowledge I was one of the lucky ones.
Equal Access Is Required
Federal law requires covered educational entities to provide equal access for students with disabilities to programs, benefits, and services regardless of the COVID-19 circumstances. This means that schools that shift to online instruction must do so in a manner that is equally accessible for blind students.
On March 12, 2020, the US Department of Education further clarified that if a school district continues to provide educational opportunities to the general student population during a school closure, the school must continue to implement a blind student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) and provide the student free appropriate public education (FAPE).
Reach for Existing Resources
To learn more about the rights of blind students, check out our Self-Advocacy In Higher Education Toolkit (Spanish version also available). Share our Higher Education Accessibility Online Resource Center with appropriate education contacts. And, circulate how to create nonvisually accessible documents around to your educators and administrators.
Recommendations for All Educational Institutions
Schools must identify how they intend to provide equal access to all learning instruction and opportunities that continue during the COVID-19 outbreak, including remote access to library services and other educational benefits. This should include providing training and guidance for instructors, particularly those educating blind students within their classrooms. It may include making a staff person, or service, available remotely that can remediate inaccessible documents or otherwise provide access to students who use screen access software such as JAWS, Zoom Text, etc. This may include providing blind students with optical character recognition software. There are endless options for ensuring blind students receive equal access to all educational and learning materials. While these are not the only recommendations, educational institutions must recognize that each student is unique; an accommodation that works for one blind student may not be beneficial for another blind student.
Take Action Now
Students, parents, teachers, anyone in the education system can help blind students take action by doing any, or all, of the following:
- Share this blog and the resources previously mentioned.
- Complete our education technology survey, and help the NFB monitor current digital accessibility barriers.
- Connect with us in our #AccessibleNOW #InEducation Twitter chat on Friday, March 20, 2020 at 12:00 p.m. ET.
If you or your child has been discriminated against by their school, we urge you to file a complaint with the US Department of Education through the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
Educational institutions must not create further barriers for blind students. While the National Federation of the Blind cannot provide legal support for every inquiry, please email [email protected] if you have questions or concerns. Together with love, hope, and determination, we transform dreams into reality with advocacy, accessibility, and action at the forefront of our efforts.