The rapid pace of technological advancement in the digital age has dramatically altered the way we live our lives. For individuals with disabilities, many of our culture’s technological achievements bring the promise of easier access to goods, services and other aspects of life. Electronic course materials at institutions of higher education are a good example. With the rapidly increasing cost of print text books, colleges and universities nationwide are beginning to offer course materials electronically. This trend is likely to continue in the near future, with some experts predicting that traditional, print texts will be replaced by electronic or digital texts within three to five years. But in order for some individuals with disabilities to take full advantage of new technologies, those technologies must be accessible.
That’s why on June 30, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas E. Perez and Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Russlyn Ali jointly issued a letter to colleges and universities expressing concern over their use of electronic book readers that are not accessible, and soliciting the assistance of university leadership in ensuring that emerging technologies used in education are fully accessible to individuals with disabilities in the future.
The issuance of the joint letter followed a series of settlement agreements that the Department of Justice entered with colleges and universities using the Kindle DX in the classroom as part of a pilot study with Amazon.com Inc.
Under the settlement agreements, the 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.
Electronic texts will no doubt make acquiring course materials easier for many students and teachers, and will likely diminish the cost for cash-strapped students to purchase textbooks. But as educational institutions and instructors move toward more frequent use of electronic materials, we must be sure that they do so in a way that is accessible to all students.
Having accessible electronic text readers could dramatically improve the experience of students with visual impairments. Today, many students with visual impairments must wait for their materials to be converted to an accessible format. Sometimes the resulting materials are inferior to what others receive and often students who are blind do not receive course materials until well after the semester has begun.
By contrast, the dedicated electronic text readers offer instantaneous downloading of electronic texts. As significant, if electronic text reading systems are accessible, students with and without disabilities will be able to use the same devices resulting in an integrated and “mainstreamed” experience. Integration is both a goal and a mandate of the civil rights laws protecting individuals with disabilities, sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which turns 20 years old on July 26.
The most far-reaching technology in American society, the Internet, has become a gateway to a range of commercial and government activities, goods, and services. Employment recruiting and hiring systems are often web-based. Online learning is yet another societal trend which schools offering programs and classroom instruction through the Internet. It is essential that all of these services are accessible to individuals with disabilities.
Deputy Assistant Attorney General Samuel R. Bagenstos of the Civil Rights Division recently voiced the department’s commitment to ensuring that technologies are fully accessible to individuals with disabilities when he testified before Congress about the Civil Rights Division’s role in implementing and enforcing the ADA, and sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, in the digital age.
“…access to the Internet and emerging technologies is not simply a technical matter, but a fundamental issue of civil rights. As more and more of our social infrastructure is made available on the Internet – in some cases, exclusively online – access to information and electronic technologies is increasingly becoming the gateway civil rights issue for individuals with disabilities.”
As we prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Justice Department is fully committed to ensuring that all individuals, including those with disabilities, have equal access to new technologies in the digital age.