November 2020 Open Letter

The COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to virtual learning has highlighted several critical barriers that blind students face due to inaccessible technology. The following is an open letter sent by National Federation of the Blind President Mark A. Riccobono in which he addresses these concerns and demands immediate action. It was sent during American Education Week 2020 to top education officials in all fifty states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico.

Dear [Top Education Official]:

I write to you regarding critical access barriers blind students are encountering in K-12 education, given the largescale shift to virtual instruction by schools this fall and schools’ use of inaccessible education technology.

Blind students, many of whom have had to fight for access to previously in-person instruction, currently find themselves unable to participate fully and equally in their education because educational apps, websites, and other technologies have been developed without accessibility in mind, and schools have not required that developers ensure accessibility before purchasing and implementing these technologies and have not prohibited staff members from using inaccessible materials they have found on their own.

The result is that blind students cannot access their instruction, complete and submit their homework, participate in virtual class discussions, complete pop quizzes and tests, or check their grades. In other words, inaccessible technologies shut blind students out of both their formal education and their opportunities to learn soft skills embedded throughout the K-12 educational experience. Additionally, blind parents and blind teachers cannot support children who use these inaccessible technologies.

Technologies such as Seesaw and Epic![1] are inaccessible with screen access software, the tools many blind people use to access information. Screen access software renders electronic information in a text-to-speech, magnified, or refreshable Braille format, but software must be coded properly for this to work. The industry-standard Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)[2] provide guidance as to how developers can ensure compatibility with screen access software and have been incorporated into Section 508 requirements of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.[3] Many states have adopted their own version of Section 508’s accessible technology requirements.

In 2010, the US Departments of Education and Justice jointly issued guidance regarding schools’ obligations, per the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, to provide students with disabilities full and equal access to programs and benefits and, specifically, schools’ use of technology.[4] In 2011, the Departments confirmed that this guidance applies to elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools.[5]

Developers who create technology without consideration of how individuals with disabilities will use it create gratuitous barriers between blind students and their education. Schools that implement inaccessible technology systematize and entrench those barriers. Both create liabilities and invite lawsuits. By way of example, in 2015, Seattle Public Schools entered into a consent decree to resolve a lawsuit regarding the district’s use of inaccessible education technology.[6] Five years ago, I wrote that this consent decree should serve as a model for the nation and should put school districts on notice that we can no longer wait to have equal education for blind students and to have access to information, use of school services, and full participation in school activities by blind faculty, personnel, and parents.

The current pandemic has highlighted the disparities that persist between blind and sighted students and has exacerbated the urgency to resolve them. We urge your immediate attention to this issue and that the schools and staff under your purview stop using education technology that has not been verified as WCAG 2.0 or 2.1 AA conformant. The National Federation of the Blind can direct you to guidance on how to ensure that the technology purchased and used by your schools is that which blind students can use with the same ease of access afforded to their sighted peers. Please do not hesitate to contact me about this critical matter.


Mark A. Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind