Recent lawsuits have focused on the use of eReaders in higher education.

Advocates for blind college students commended a federal report recommending steps for improving ed-tech accessibility on campuses—but without prompt attention from Congressional lawmakers, the laundry list of suggestions won’t become policy in much of higher education.

A federal commission released its 18 recommendations to expand accessibility to students with disabilities Dec.5, highlighting plans to incentivize publishers of educational material to make the material usable for all students, creating professional development programs to make educators more aware of accessibility issues, and including accessibility-related metadata in classroom material.

The Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities, released its recommendations after studying accessibility on campuses for 14 months.

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With the rise of digital content—eBooks, specifically—on campuses nationwide, officials from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) have reminded colleges and universities in recent years that electronic textbooks and online learning programs shouldn’t be implemented in courses unless the material is accessible for students who are blind, or have another disability.

Mark Riccobono, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind’s (NFB) Jernigan Institute, who helped compose the federal report, said accessibility issues have risen on higher education’s priority list. Until Congress holds hearings on the topic and enforces the report’s recommendations, many college students will be left without access to digital classroom material.

“We’re at a crucial point right now, and unless Congress moves,” the educational technology market, along with colleges, “won’t listen,” Riccobono said. “My fear is that students that need more accessibility today are not getting it, and might not get it.”

Publishers and distributors of educational materials are encouraged in the AIM report to include metadata on their websites to make it easier to school officials to find books, for instance, that have proven accessible for disabled students.

“Once such metadata are available to the supply chain, educators will be able to select curriculum products offering the widest range of accessibility features,” the report said. “Equally, individual print-impaired readers will potentially be able to compare their personal accessibility requirements with the range of features offered by a product to determine which version, if any, of a particular product would be suitable for their needs.”

Simply presenting educational technology leaders with the accessibility problems adherent in many digital and web-based tools, Riccobono said, will help campus decision makers consider accessibility when choosing eBooks, for example.

“You can bet that every single day, the IT [chief] thinks about protecting students’ data,” he said. “That person had not been thinking about accessibility every single day. It has never been first and foremost on that person’s mind, but it should be.”

ED officials became more heavily involved with eBook and eReader use in higher education after complaints surfaced at several universities—including Arizona State University—that the Amazon Kindle wasn’t usable for students with disabilities.

Federal rules for how eReaders can legally be used by colleges and universities were clarified last spring after advocates for blind and low-vision students criticized eReader pilot programs on several campuses in 2010.

The revised rules, published online in a “frequently asked questions” format, reiterate that students who are blind “must be afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted students” when campus officials launch initiatives that put eReaders in students’ hands.

Colleges can provide books on tape, for example, for disabled students who can’t access emerging technologies like eReaders, which can have larger font for students with low vision.

The ED guidelines say that “the alternative media must provide access to the benefits of technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.”

Technology accessibility grabbed headlines in March after the NFB filed a complaint against New York University (NYU) and Northwestern University when they adopted Gmail and other Google applications that aren’t fully functional with text-to-speech technology.

NFB charged that the adoption of Google Apps for Education violates the Americans with Disabilities act.

A 2010 survey of education-technology preferences showed that nearly 60 percent of respondents from public universities who use outsourced eMail hosting services said their campus uses Gmail accounts, with 35 percent using Microsoft Outlook and 5 percent using Zimbra.

“This has gotten Google’s attention and raised awareness at a lot of universities,” Roccobono said. “The Google case has helped move accessibility into people’s minds and helped them understand … that there are real barriers for students with disabilities.”

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