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Technology Must Be Accessible to All, Feds Reaffirm

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In a letter today, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights again emphasized that schools and universities must be sure that any technological device they use must be accessible to students with disabilities.

Less than a year ago, the OCR and the Department of Justice's civil rights division sent colleges and universities a "Dear Colleague" letter that warned that using electronic book readers that lack a function that reads all words aloud for students with vision problems could be considered discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That letter came on the heels of settlements over ebook readers between the Department of Justice and several universities, including Princeton, Pace University in New York, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and Reed College in Portland, Oregon. More recently, a settlement was reached with the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business over the same issue.

In today's letter, which specifically includes elementary and secondary school leaders, the Office of Civil Rights wrote more broadly about ensuring the accessibility of all types of emerging technology.

"As the use of emerging technologies in the classroom increases, schools at all levels must ensure equal access to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of the technology for all students, including students with disabilities," wrote Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights for the Department of Education.

Her office has received at least 28 complaints involving technology since 2008. Most of those have involved colleges and universities.

Schools need to "think about on the front end whether the device is fully accessible," Ms. Ali said in an interview. "What we're trying to do is provide institutions counsel no matter what comes down the pike. Who could have seen a decade ago the way that technology has been revolutionized today?"

She pointed out that just because a classroom has no students with vision problems doesn't mean the technology doesn't have to be accessible. The class may have a student with a specific learning disability that may make it difficult to get information from printed sources. So along with the letter, schools have been provided with answers to 15 frequently asked questions about making technology accessible to all students, including those with print disabilities.

"Technology can be an incredible asset," Ms. Ali said. "If it's used to further the achievement gap and further the opportunity gap...we should prevent that on the front end."

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