Thursday, January 26, 2023

A Podcast: What is True Accessibility

 I was interviewed for this EdUp podcast.  I was, as you'll see, pretty freewheeling. I was told not to prepare, and so that's how I went into it.

But I like the YouTube version better. EdUp didn't caption the session. You'll hear me get into that, but you can use the YouTube captioning with this version.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Texas Legislative Commission on Virtual Education Written Testimony

Raymond M. Rose

Public Policy Chair, Texas Digital Learning Association

Digital Accessibility Certificate Program Design and Delivery Team


Just a little background so you know who I am. I have been involved in virtual education in K-12 since its start. I was part of the team that created the country’s first virtual high school, VHS. But I had been directing one of the first teacher professional development projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) before that. Before getting involved with virtual education, I had been a junior high science teacher, and a high school guidance counselor before becoming a Civil Rights Specialist for the Massachusetts Department of Education, and then trainer and manager for the regional desegregation assistance center covering New England.

In 2007, as a member of the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) Research Committee, I co-authored Access and Equity in Online Classes and Virtual Schools. We knew there was no guidance for the field. Ours was the first publication in the country addressing accessibility issues in online education. In doing the research for that publication, we discovered a school district that had established a policy that students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) were not allowed to take an online course. The Office for Civil Rights cited the school district for violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Unfortunately, we continue to find reports of public schools that have an enrollment policy, yet deny students with IEPs the ability to enroll in online learning opportunities. It’s also relevant to note that the three earliest virtual education programs in the country, Florida Virtual, Kentucky Virtual, and the Virtual High School, have all enrolled students with disabilities from their inception.

Unfortunately, there was little interest in accessibility or that 2007 publication. I presented at NACOL conferences and at other educational conferences on accessibility whenever I could. Interest in digital accessibility was slow to happen in K-12, but moved a bit faster in higher education.

In 2012, the Texas Department of Information Resources, required Texas state agencies and the institutions of higher education to designate an Electronic Information Resources Accessibility Coordinator, though it has taken some institutions until recently to comply.

By 2014, NACOL, now the International Association for K-12 Online Learning  (iNACOL), asked me to write an update so I researched and authored Access and Equity for All Learners in Blended and Online Education became a reality. By that time, there was more interest in the importance and understanding of the need for accessibility. In 2010, the US Department of Education sent a Dear Colleague letter to the presidents of colleges and universities to address accessibility issues with electronic book readers.  That letter stated:

 …universities agreed not to purchase, require, or recommend use of the Kindle DX, or any other dedicated electronic book reader, unless or until the device is fully accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision, or the universities provide reasonable accommodation or modification so that a student can acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted students with substantially equivalent ease of use.

Then in 2011, in another letter to K-12 superintendents, they said the 2010 letter also applied to school districts and they issued another letter to provide more information. It also said, among other things:

Schools should begin by considering accessibility issues up front, when they are deciding whether to create or acquire emerging technology and when they are planning how the technology will be used.  To that end, schools should include accessibility requirements and analyses as part of their acquisition procedures.

In my experience, this is largely ignored in K-12 education. When OCR investigations find schools using digital resources that are not fully accessible, the school district will be cited for non-compliance with Section 504.

2014 saw an increase in enforcement of Section 504, especially as related to online accessibility issues. In the compliance reviews, OCR stated their operational definition of accessibility, which is a clarification of the 2010 letter. It states:

Those with a disability are able to acquire the same information and engage in the same interaction -- and within the same time frame – as those without disabilities.

While it’s easy to say schools need to review all digital materials for accessibility before purchase or use, the scramble for digital resources at the start of the pandemic showed how little accessibility was a consideration in the selection of digital resources.

One question is: when do schools (teachers and school leaders) learn about the OCR definition of accessibility or how to review materials for accessibility? The short answer is they don’t. TEA’s certification requirements for teachers and school leaders drive the Educational Preparation Program and Education Leadership curriculums and yet do not include specific mention of digital accessibility.

School districts are required by Section 504 to identify a Section 504 Coordinator. That role is normally just added to the existing Special Education Director’s job description. But, in the place where educators might be exposed to Section 504 regulations, special education preparation, it is generally treated as just like special education. Professional development programs must focus on all aspects of Section 504 to ensure school leaders and those assigned to the role of Section 504 Coordinator have a comprehensive understanding of the regulations and implications of Section 504, especially as it concerns digital accessibility.

New teachers don’t have the knowledge nor the time to add another task to their lives. One solution is the building of high-quality professional development programs for practicing teachers and school leaders. One that will introduce accessibility legislation and provide them with the skills to conduct accessibility reviews of digital resources. And, to make clear that it is morally, ethically, and most importantly, legally inappropriate to deny any student with a disability access to virtual education or digital resources. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

It's been a while -- about time to catch up

I've been slipping, and not posting. There have been a variety of things worth posting.  So, I'll make this a series of things that should have been posted over the past months.

Here's an article that I co-authored with Mary Rice. It's a result of a session we did together at DLAC 2022. Connecting accessibility, third-party curriculum and student success

School districts must carefully vet digital resources to ensure IDEA compliance, two learning accessibility advocates write. 

The US Department of Justice posted Guidance on Web Accessibility and the ADA.  

There's nothing new in the guidance. It's the same things that we've been talking about for years. But, it is nice to have DoJ reiterate them.  And in that post there's some examples of issues, again, no surprises but useful information when you want to show examples.

The Texas Legislature, established the Texas Commission on Virtual Education

The commission was established to develop and make recommendations regarding the delivery of virtual education in the public school system and state funding for virtual education under the Foundation School Program. Tphe Commission has to prepare a report to deliver to the next Legislative session that begins in January 2023. They hold monthly meetings which are streamed, and the past meetings are available on the website. Mary Rice and I will be making a presentation to the Commission at it's May 25th session.

There's a nice TCEA blog post: How to Encourage Digital Accessibility written by Miguel Guhlin after we had a few email exchanges. 

I think this is a significant blog post for TCEA. I've been trying to get some visibility for digital accessibility within TCEA for years and I count this as a significant win.

Friday, October 01, 2021

Illinois Passes Law to Require Digital Accessibility in all K-12 Schools (from the DLC)

Here's a blog post I wrote for the Digital Learning Collaborative.

Illinois Passes Law to Require Digital Accessibility in all K-12 Schools 

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.