Raymond Rose is the Public Policy Chair for the Texas Distance Learning Association, and a member of the development and implementation team for their Digital Accessibility Certificate program. He has been involved in online learning for almost three decades.
On September 2 Governor Pritzker signed Illinois House Bill 26. The new law is designed to make digital content on third-party curriculum used in K-12 schools fully accessible to individuals with disabilities. In some respects, it echoes the current federal legislation Title II of the ADA, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. But it doesn’t go as far as the Federal statues do.
HB 26 specifically applies to third-party curriculum provided through the Internet. It would appear that the law does not apply to digital resources or curriculum developed by the school.
Sec. 10-20.75.part (b) of the statute specifies the “school district must require that the Internet website or web service comply with Level AA of the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 or any revised version of those guidelines.” WCAG 2.1 AA is the current enforcement standard used by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). While Illinois HB 26 specifically applies to third-party digital content the Federal legislation, ADA and Section 504, applies to all digital content, both third-party and locally developed content, used by the schools.
I’ll be curious to see what the state will consider adequate for the requirement. OCR does not consider it sufficient that a school district simply includes in all contracts with third-party vendors that their product meets WCAG 2.1 AA standards. The expectation is that the academic institution be active in reviewing digital resources for accessibility. I am party to discussions from higher education accessibility folks. And, while a number of colleges and universities do include a contract requirement it appears that often the digital resource will only partially meet the standard and then the institution will work with the vendor to make the product accessible so they can purchase it.
I believe that to meet HB 26 school districts will need to create a vendor review process. Many school districts probably already do content and technical reviews of potential digital curriculum resources, but they will now need to have staff with the knowledge of accessibility and specifically WCAG 2.1 AA who review digital resources before a contract is signed.
In 2010 the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights sent a Dear Colleague letter to all school superintendents that describes their interpretation of the ADA and Section 504. OCR is responsible for enforcing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794, and its implementing regulation at 34 C.F.R. Part 104, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability by recipients of Federal financial assistance. OCR is also responsible for enforcing Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq., and its implementing regulation at 28 C.F.R. Part 35, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public entities.
HB 26 goes into effect August 1, 2022. WCAG 3.0 is currently in draft and might be available before that. HB 26 says that the standard will be WCAG 2.1 AA or “any revised version of the guidelines”. As school districts develop their plans for review of digital resources, they should not avoid looking at the 3.0 standard.
There are resources to help accessibility reviews and there are organizations that provide training on digital accessibility and there are others that will, for a fee, conduct accessibility reviews. In addition, there are companies that offer overlays that are supposed to ensure that website content is fully accessible; but be very careful because there have been problems with some overlay services.
Given that HB 26 doesn’t go farther than current federal regulations, and in some ways doesn’t even go as far, it’s unclear as to why the state legislature passed the law. The law seems to have received some media attention, and the governor was quoted as saying “As online educational tools become further integrated into school curriculums, we need to be sure that these tools are properly addressing the needs of all the students and families they’re designed to serve.” Therefore, at the very least, the attention given to the law’s passage has raised the issue of accessibility for students with disabilities.
The bottom line, for all academic institutions across the United States is that all digital resources need to be accessible to all people with disabilities. While Illinois HB 26 focuses on third-party curriculum products, the Federal legislation applies to all digital resources, even if developed in-house.