Future Reflections        Special Issue: Technology

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The Promise of Accessible Technology: Challenges and Opportunities

by Mark A. Riccobono

Mark Riccobono at the 2012 Washington SeminarFrom the Editor: Mark Riccobono serves as executive director of the NFB's Jernigan Institute, the research and education arm of the National Federation of the Blind. On February 7, 2012, he addressed the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (generally known as the HELP Committee). A video of the committee hearing, including Mark's presentation, can be found at <www.help.senate.gov/hearings/hearing/?id=15eea6a0-5056-9502-5d55-b899d73ef5f9>

Chairman Harkin, Senator Enzi, and members of the committee, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind. Today's hearing deals with a critical question of civil rights in the twenty-first century--will technology facilitate unprecedented access to education for all, or will it be the force that segregates students with disabilities into an unequal learning environment?

Technology offers a new accessibility paradigm. In its basic form, digital content is accessible to everybody. It can easily be moved, converted, and translated into the form required by each individual student. By universally designing technologies to handle a broad range of physical and sensory interfaces, we can achieve the equality in education that we seek. But in order to reach that goal, we must move beyond the old model of accommodation.

Imagine a classroom where the iPad is used daily. A blind student now has the possibility of equal participation by using the built-in technology to access the same content and functionality as her sighted peers. She can connect a refreshable Braille display to read the lesson the teacher uploaded just moments earlier. She can enter quiz answers in Braille, and they can seamlessly be translated into print and instantly transmitted to the teacher for grading. She has unprecedented access--and this is not the future, it is achievable today.

Alternatively, our blind student might be shut out of the curriculum if her school adopts Google Chromebooks or Apps for Education, MyITlab, Barnes and Noble's Nook, Amazon's Kindle, or any of the dozens of other inaccessible systems and devices that are being used to facilitate learning today. A school that wants to fix inaccessible technology which already has been deployed faces the reality that the reconfiguration will be expensive and is unlikely to result in a solution that is equally effective and equally integrated. If the student chooses to file a formal complaint, she faces the personal and professional costs of taking that action. She has unequal access to education. This, too, is not the future--it is the reality for many students with disabilities today.

Congressional leadership begins with swift action to significantly improve accessibility within the federal government. We should no longer accept anything less than complete accessibility of technologies purchased and deployed by the government. Similarly, all technologies used, developed, and disseminated as the result of federal grant awards must unquestionably be accessible. We need strong, functional, and enforced standards for educational technology. Furthermore, the liability for failure to meet those standards should extend beyond the schools to the technology manufacturers and distributors. Government leadership could help make accessibility a core element of training for all IT professionals, and we should collect and disseminate best practices in accessibility.

America should be a world leader in the use of technology to educate and empower each of its citizens. This is a rare opportunity to establish a standard that will significantly improve access to education, promote innovation, and provide our nation with both economic and social benefits. We know the type of future we want, we understand the promise of technology, and we must now provide leadership to secure that future and fulfill that promise for all Americans.

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