E-Books and Federal Civil Rights Legislation
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June 29, 2010, the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in conjunction with the Civil Rights Division of the US. Department of Justice sent a Dear Colleague letter addressed Dear College or University President.
The letter was in response to recently settled agreements with colleges and universities that used the Kindle DX. In the settlement, the universities agreed not to purchase, require, or recommend use of the Kindle DX or another electronic book reader or similar technology that was not accessible to people with visual disabilities.
Higher education institutions have well-established procedures for making classroom accommodations for students who register their disability and ask for assistance. Accommodations are generally made for courses that take place in standard classrooms. Because digital materials are now a part of most learning environments, be they traditional classroom, blended, or fully online, this is where the change is needed.
Digital information and resources need to be accessible for all students with disabilities, irrespective of whether or not the institution knows of the disability. Legally, the onus for making materials accessible rests with the institution. It is not acceptable for an instructor, or the institution to require a student to locate instructional accessible materials on their own.
More recent settlement agreements (e.g., Dudley v Miami (https://www.ada.gov/miami_university_cd.html), Wichita State (https://www.nfb.org/images/nfb/documents/pdf/higher-ed-toolkit/wichita-state-agreement.pdf), and Louisiana Tech (https://www.washington.edu/accessibility/requirements/accessibility-cases-and-settlement-agreements/)) point to the expectation that the institution will not just look at current accessibility issues, but will take action to prevent the purchase of electronic information technologies that are not accessible. It is necessary to explain to faculty that, if the digital content they want to purchase is not accessible, they must find accessible alternatives. Additionally, those and other settlements require creating the position of accessibility coordinator; adoption and dissemination of policies; training for faculty, students, and staff; and an accessibility audit. Many colleges and universities have created an accessibility coordinator position even though they haven’t had a compliance settlement. Though there are a variety of titles, the people filling these positions generally have the lead in ensuring that the institution is taking action to confirm all digital materials are fully accessible to people with disabilities.
It is the responsibility of the academic institution to ensure those with a disability are able to
acquire the same information and engage in the same interactions—and within the same time frame—as those without disabilities. The onus is therefor on the academic institution to be proactive in meeting its responsibilities under the laws.