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Amit Shai

  Education Blog

11/15/2007

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A new academic year has just started. On College Day, Professor M. spotted me in the crowd and headed my way with a big smile to tell me about the new digital movies he made for his course. We chatted a bit about how great it is for students to have this material on the Web and how they can now focus in class on understanding what they learn instead of taking notes all the time. "It's like having a tutor at home," he said, "Should have a great impact on my students' performance - I expect them all to get good grades this semester and they'll have no excuse for dropping the class... besides, I will be able to use all this in my online class!" "Excellent," I said, "Don't forget the captions of your voiceover portions for accessibility." Then he paused; "Yeah... what a pain; such a waste of time". I guess this is where I was supposed to start a postmodernist conversation on how disability is socially constructed, how inclusive technology can change the lives of persons with disabilities, how accessibility features are good for all our students, and how Professor M. needs to take a good look inside and rethink his ableist attitude and discover his identity as a temporarily able-bodied person. However, the music was too loud and M. was ready to move on. So, instead, I said, "It is the law... we can help, you know. Send me your transcriptions and your movie files and we will caption your movies as soon as possible. How long are the movies?" "I don't know", Professor M. said as he started walking away. "I will give you a call later."

How is it that in the U.S., almost a decade after section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was amended to ensure Web accessibility for persons with disabilities, Web accessibility is still not fully implemented in institutions of higher education around the country? The issue does not involve lack of Federal and State laws or local education system regulations; we have plenty of these. Neither does the issue involve the neglect of human rights, poor implementation by incompetent school administrators, lack of faculty professional development and training, or uncaring professors. The bottom line is that the use of accessibility standards through compliance with current laws does not guarantee the true inclusion of students with disabilities in e-learning activities integrated into their course curricula.

Several factors are at the core of this issue: First, related policymaking processes operate in a reactive rather than preemptive fashion; they produce pull regulations that require government-funded institutions to purchase accessible technologies, but allow the ICT industry to release to educators products that are not inclusive in addressing needs of all students. Second, Web accessibility is challenged constantly, as new technologies are introduced in the mainstream market and policymaking processes constantly lag behind, not demonstrating a realistic attempt to provide practical directives at the principle level. Third, and the most difficult to change, is an underlying ableist approach that drives thoughts and actions of many of the stakeholders associated with this issue:

On the policy level, an ableist ideological foundation results in laws that reflect and favor the policymakers' view of the world.

On the higher-education institutional level, the growth experienced due to the use of ICT for marketing, recruitment, administration, and distance learning course offerings are just a few of the incentives motivating institutions to comply with accessibility law. However, could we state that accessibility compliance in educational institutions is done through a true organizational commitment to accept difference? Or, is it done in the spirit of dissolving the difference of students with disabilities in the eyes of the law and, thus, secure government funding and avoid lawsuits?

On the ICT industry level, an ableist approach results in the release of products that have accessibility placeholders that can host the needed accessible features if someone else produces them. Such ideology causes corporations that develop ICTs to consider accessibility as an add-on that requires costly re-engineering of their products, rather than producing accessibility as built-in components included in initial planning and design stages. And finally, on the faculty level, an ableist approach is typified in Professor M.'s reaction: accessibility is a pain associated with the other and requires too much work.

The most problematic aspect of Web accessibility implementation in e-learning is making the end-users, most frequently faculty who teach online, carry the burden of making their course sites and material accessible. Web programming expertise must not be a pre-requisite for online teaching. Rather than looking at faculty as end-users responsible for developing accessibility features in order to teach their courses, we need to look at policymakers to ensure that the ICT industry indeed assumes responsibility for releasing inclusive tools that would free the faculty from the accessibility worry. Considering ADA regulations of accessible physical spaces, one would not expect the teacher who conducts a class in an inaccessible building to build alternative access to his or her classroom. The architects, contractors, and school facility administrators ensure that such alternative access is included in the institution's infrastructure plans. Similarly, architects of ICTs must work with schools that integrate e-learning in their organizational practices to ensure that alternative access is provided before it reaches the end-user faculty and student levels.