Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Blind & Visually Disabled Students Challenge Universities

The Chronicle of Higher Education, in a news story dated December 12, by Marc Parry, reports that as colleges and universities create more social media-based services and "hubs" for students, there is an increasing problem with visually disabled students lacking access. The developers of these sites simply don't think about making them accessible, the way that architects now routinely consider ramps and braille signage. But the problem is bigger than social sites' accessibility. E-textbooks often lack the metadata tags that are key for the screenreaders used by visually disabled readers. If an illustration does not have a caption explaining what the illustration, graph or image shows, the blind student cannot access that information. When schools mandate the use of Kindles they really need to be aware that these machines do not have decent readers built in, and blind users will HATE or be unable to use the machines to access e-books (depends on the version whether there is a voice at all -- visit this 2009 CNet review for a sample of the voice). When websites require mouse clicks to navigate, a vision-impaired user cannot access the site, because they cannot see to move the mouse around on the screen. They use a keyboard, and need a key substitute for the button click that the web designer imagines for the mouse. With a mouse-only design, visually impaired users have been locked out of the website.

These new developments are actually causing the visually disabled student to LOSE ground from the status of the visually disabled college student of 20 years ago, according to Daniel F. Goldstein, counsel to the National Federation for the Blind. Goldstein helped students file a discrimination complaint against Penn State because of campus technology blocking their access to the library catalog, department websites, and the course management software, which is apparently a nightmare.

The article does a nice job of hinting at the extreme difficulties which students and disabilities support offices alike run into with textbooks, for instance, and the long-time difficulties of trying to convince textbook publishers to do something to remedy the problem:

In the 1990s, he (Blind activist Darrell Shandrow, a senior currently at Arizona State, studying journalism) "virtually bombed out" his first two semesters of college and withdrew from most classes, largely because of a lack of textbooks in Braille or electronic format. Nearly two decades later, access to books remains a very thorny issue. Many publishers have "dragged their feet" making textbooks available in alternate formats, says Jack Trammell, director of disability-support services at Randolph-Macon College, in Virginia. That creates delays and leaves colleges scrambling to figure out alternative fixes, such as scanning books themselves.

Amazon's Kindle had the potential to avoid such problems. Unlike ink on paper, digital texts aren't inherently visual or aural, advocates argue, so they should be equally accessible to blind or sighted users. In fact, the Kindle did come with text-to-speech technology. But its menus were not accessible to blind users.

(snip) In June 2009, he (Shandrow) joined the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind in suing Arizona State to block it from deploying the Kindle. The groups also filed complaints about Kindle pilots at five other colleges.

The outcome was mixed. Since Mr. Shandrow was ineligible for the Kindle pilot, a judge dismissed him from the case for failing to identify "any clear policy by ASU that will in any way impact him." But then, in January, Arizona State agreed to settle the case. Denying any legal violation, the university said it would strive to use only accessible e-book readers for a two-year period. Similar agreements were soon reached between the Justice Department and other colleges identified by the advocates.

In Washington, meanwhile, federal authorities seized on the Kindle controversy to broadcast a sharp message to colleges nationwide: Requiring inaccessible e-readers may run afoul of the law. The warning came in a public letter released jointly by the Departments of Justice and Education. (here is a nice blog post that pulls together the full text of the letter with some excellent links & comments)

"It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students," the government said.

(snip) Inaccessibility is a major issue for the movement to post educational content free on the Internet. Hundreds of colleges have spent tens of millions of dollars producing lecture videos, notes, syllabi, and other free online materials. But Hal Plotkin, a senior policy adviser in the Education Department, says he would be surprised if more than 10 percent of these open educational resources are fully accessible. That flaw has "dramatically" held back their deployment, says Mr. Plotkin, a former community-college trustee in California.

Public institutions "will not use these materials," Mr. Plotkin says, "because the lawsuits that would follow would be inevitable, and very costly."

(snip) There are hopeful signs. California State University has shown how powerful colleges can be when they make access a high priority. The nation's largest public-college system turns its size into influence by denying problem companies access to its market of 430,000 students. That helped push Apple, Google, and Blackboard to upgrade their products for the blind. (Here is a newsletter article from 2009 noting improvements from all those companies as well as IBM, Elluminate and Microsoft, that make technology more accessible for the disabled).

Blackboard got so much better that in March, the National Federation of the Blind lauded the company for "great improvement" in the latest release of its course-management software. Navigation is smoother, and so are the forms, allowing blind students to do things like submit assignments and participate in discussions. Blackboard even offers a self-paced course for professors to get guidance on building accessible classes.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department is considering amending the ADA's regulations to specify that the Web, like a building, is covered by the law.
So, things move along, glacially, but they move. Prickly activists like Mr. Shandrow are the ones who make them move, along with supportive government officials who are willing to make change. We will see how much and how fast. If you are in a position of decision-making at your school, keep these factors in mind and perhaps you will save your institution from a law suit, and maybe even make them into the sort of change-maker that Cal State has become.

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