We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident—Do You?

Blog Date: 
Thursday, April 11, 2013

By Mark A. Riccobono

Technology and education are two topics that get a great deal of attention today. The intersection of technology and education is viewed as an unprecedented opportunity to fully unlock the power of knowledge and make it more accessible than ever before in the history of mankind. Innovative applications of technology are thought to be instrumental to breaking down traditional barriers to teaching and learning, and many people are working to utilize technologies to expand the circle of participation. At the same time, education is frequently—and, we believe, correctly—thought to be the civil rights issue of our time. But despite these beliefs about the importance of education, and the integration of technology into education, there are still many in positions of power within both government and education whose words justify practices that result in discriminatory, separate, and unequal education for the blind and other students with disabilities.
 
A June 29, 2010, Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) (http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-20100629.html) jointly issued by the Departments of Justice and Education clearly states that “Requiring use of an emerging technology in a classroom environment when the technology is inaccessible to an entire population of individuals with disabilities—individuals with visual disabilities—is discrimination prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) unless those individuals are provided accommodations or modifications that permit them to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.” While this communication was sparked by the objection of the National Federation of the Blind to university pilot programs that offered the inaccessible Amazon Kindle as a means for providing instructional content to students, this statement is meant to apply in a broad context to all technologies used in providing educational programs and services. In order to clarify the DCL and make connections to K-12 educational programs, as well as post-secondary institutions, the Department of Education released a frequently asked question document (http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/dcl-ebook-faq-201105.html) in May 2011. This document further emphasized the key role of accessibility in statements such as, “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…” and, “the implementation of an emerging technology should always include planning for accessibility. Given that tens of thousands of elementary, secondary, and postsecondary students have visual impairments and that the composition of the student body at a given school may change quickly and unexpectedly, the use of emerging technology at a school without currently enrolled students with visual impairments should include planning to ensure equal access to the educational opportunities and benefits afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of such technology.” This correspondence, combined with the civil rights laws it is meant to clarify and other nondiscrimination practices in our country, should make it self-evident that separate and unequal technology used in education is not permitted in any form.
 
Yet many policy makers and administrators of programs continue to speak and act as though it is possible to create or use two separate and equal technologies—one for the nondisabled and one for the disabled. This is despite the fact that both history and present-day reality should make it evident that separate is not, and cannot be, equal. Maybe this is only evident if you are a blind person, like me, who has faced inaccessible technology in an educational setting. Maybe it is only evident if you have felt the frustration of attempting to interact with your peers when you only have part of the information they have been provided. Maybe it is only evident if you have been passed from one sympathetic person to the next within your educational institution, with each of them giving you their version of the same old story—they did not create the problem and they have no power to fix the technology.
 
The problem is real, discriminatory, and impacting students in classrooms right at this moment.  For example, students with disabilities are increasingly shut out of classroom learning technologies that incorporate instant access to course-related content and features that foster collaboration and communication with teachers and peers, including learning management systems and e-book platforms.  Though some companies have built these technologies to be accessible to everyone, others have not.   For those technologies that are inaccessible, a separate solution for disabled students cannot provide the same benefits, such as collaboration and instant access to the same content.  To provide equal access, the mainstream technology used by everyone must be accessible. 
 
Yet many of the people in positions of power do not understand how their words endorse separate and unequal. I will refrain from speculating about the possible reasons these individuals do not seem to recognize the harm that is being done when they pretend that a technology can be built to provide the same educational benefits as another technology, with the only difference being that one is accessible. Instead, I wish to pose one scenario that I think gets at the point.
 
Suppose you had a new course being offered to students and the course was so cutting-edge and innovative that it had to be done in a special dynamic place, such as a particular laboratory with specific models, scientific equipment, and so forth. Suppose it turned out that this new dynamic environment did not permit individuals with physical disabilities to actually get in the door. Would you begin by setting up a separate method for accessing the information of the course? Would you tell the students who could not get in that you would do all you could to make sure they could look through the window at the other students? Would you plan to provide them with technology so they could Skype into the class to receive the content that is being delivered to all the other students? And, when it is convenient, would you bring any special equipment that might be used in the classroom outside so that they can have some limited interaction with it—even though that interaction is not appropriately timed with the lesson? Wouldn’t such a course of action be unreasonable, unfair, and discriminatory?
 
The truth is that the effect of the scenario I have presented is precisely the model of education that is being permitted when policy makers or administrators proclaim that their only responsibility to students with disabilities is to find separate accommodations for inaccessible technology in the classroom. Educational technology does more than simply deliver a stream of text or lecture content. It is a dynamic learning and teaching tool with which students and teachers can discover and create content, initiate interaction, collaborate with one another, challenge assumptions, log inquiries, and participate on equal grounds.
 
All students have a right to be educated, to participate fully in the classroom, and to equally access all technologies utilized in the classroom. Technology is not inherently inaccessible—it has to be deliberately designed that way—and when technology is built with accessibility in mind, it expands the circle of participation and enhances our educational environments. In the National Federation of the Blind, we hold these truths to be self-evident—do you? Policy makers and administrators who cannot or will not, through their words and actions, uphold the laws and equal rights standards of this country and apply them in today’s classrooms need to know that we will be on their doorstep, at their conference table, and out on the streets to help them find the truths that we know.