By Jon Fansmith
Colleges and universities are committed to creating the best possible learning experience for all of their students. In the case of students with disabilities, this means providing accessible campuses and learning materials that support their education.
Meeting these goals can be challenging and schools may not always get it right. But we believe that institutions working together with students can determine the best course of action. That’s why higher education leaders have expressed concern about a piece of federal legislation called the TEACH (Technology, Equality and Accessibility in College and Higher Education) Act.
A version of the TEACH Act was included in the Higher Education Act reauthorization discussion draft released by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) in June. Among the comments sent earlier this month to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the committee, ACE and 20 other higher education organizations stated that the TEACH Act language would result in a “significant chilling effect in the usage of new technology.”
The bill is intended to help institutions serve their students with disabilities, a goal colleges and universities strongly support. However, this is not what the TEACH Act would do, as ACE senior vice president Terry Hartle noted in The Boston Globe earlier this week.
Far from creating helpful, voluntary guidelines, the TEACH Act would limit schools from using new technology to aid students, including those with disabilities, unless that technology had been approved by the federal government. Moreover, it would overturn existing Americans with Disability Act legal standards.
It also would put an obscure federal agency—the Access Board—in charge of approving the use of new technologies by campuses, effectively blocking technological progress, Hartle wrote.
That agency has never directly addressed higher education technology issues and has been trying to “refresh” its current technology guidelines for the federal government (last promulgated in 2000) for close to a decade. Yet, the TEACH Act would mean that colleges could only use technologies that meet guidelines created by the Access Board, or risk being sued.
The bill would apply a new, extremely rigid standard for accessibility exclusively to colleges and universities that is distinct from the standard the nation as a whole, including the federal government, has long followed. Such an inflexible approach would limit, not enhance, the ability of colleges and universities to serve persons with disabilities.
Hartle and Jarret S. Cummings, EDUCAUSE’s director of policy and external relations, recently elaborated on these concerns in an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed Sept 16.
Unfortunately, some supporters of this legislation have misconstrued the higher education community’s concerns about the bill, falsely depicting it as opposition to providing accessible learning technologies. To the contrary: Colleges and universities strongly support more and better technology to better serve students with disabilities and to provide clarity to institutions as they adopt new technologies.
As Hartle wrote in a letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the higher education community remains steadfast in its desire to find ways to improve learning for all students, and hopes to work with disability community advocates toward that goal. But putting the federal government in charge is not the answer.
For a detailed legal analysis of the TEACH Act, click here.