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The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) renews the federal government’s commitment to equal opportunity for all students, while shifting more authority to states and districts to elevate the role of technology in planning and implementing innovative programs. Educators can take advantage of the flexibility ESSA provides, including using Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) program funds, to expand the focus of their technology initiatives to include the intersection of accessibility, educational technology, and assistive technology. This expansion will enable educators to address gaps in student achievement and improve digital literacy through blended and personalized learning.
Importance of UDL
The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) marks the first time that Universal Design for Learning (UDL) appears in K-12 educational policy, adopting the definition of the Higher Education Act of 2008:
“UDL means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that… provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged”.
The prominence given to UDL in ESSA highlights the important intersection between accessibility, technology, and personalized learning for students with disabilities (CAST, 2016; Center for Digital Education, 2017). For example, ESSA references UDL as one of the key ways that SSAE grants for educational technology should be used to increase access to personalized learning supported by technology:
“…increase access to personalized, rigorous learning experiences supported by technology … improve the ability of local educational agencies to use technology, consistent with the principles of universal design for learning, to support the learning needs of all students, including children with disabilities and English learners” (ESSA, 2015).
Additionally, the 2017 National Education Technology Plan (NETP) makes explicit the connection between transformative technology use in the classroom and meeting the needs of diverse learners:
“... institutions should develop and implement learning resources that embody the flexibility and power of technology to create equitable and accessible learning ecosystems … institutions should insist on the use of resources and the design of learning experiences that use Universal design (UD) practices to ensure accessibility and increased equity of learning opportunities” (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, 2017)
Taken together, these priorities point to a shift in thinking about how we use technology tools to address the wide variability in learners, and that emerging digital learning technologies cannot neglect to address the needs of students with disabilities. Driven by ESSA, States and districts have an unprecedented opportunity to invest in accessible technologies to transform teaching and learning for all students.
Why Does Accessibility Matter?
In 2018, the long-awaited refresh to Section 508 moved U.S. accessibility standards to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 (U.S. General Services Administration, 2018; U.S. Access Board, 2017; World Wide Web Consortium, 2017). Prior to these changes however, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education provided guidance that clarified that digital accessibility was a legal obligation in educational spaces:
- Existing case law and federal regulations make clear that accessibility is mandatory;
- Schools are required to provide equal access to web-based services, programs, and activities (e.g., websites, online learning portals, digital textbooks, student/parent portals);
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was explicitly written to keep pace with developing technologies; and
- New or emerging technologies are not exempt from accessibility requirements (3Play Media, 2016; U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Education, 2010, 2011).
This guidance, and the updates to Section 508, underscore that addressing digital accessibility is a legal obligation. Guidelines, checklists, and standards are useful tools to ensure that your content is compliant. However, accessibility is more than just a checklist for compliance. Understanding users, and how they interact with the web and digital content can help education leaders move beyond the technical components of accessibility to develop a usable and accessible learning experience (Crossland, 2017). Too often, the focus on accessibility is driven primarily by compliance rather than a focus on the variable needs of individual learners (Asakawa, 2005). Digital accessibility is more than a legal obligation; digital exclusion of our students and our communities means we’re failing to address issues of educational equity—providing.
How Can UD/UDL Principles Help Us Address Digital Accessibility?
At its most basic, Universal Design (UD) is the principle that all products and the “built environment” are designed to be usable by everyone, regardless of age, ability, or status. The phrase “built environment” refers to human-made physical spaces for working, playing, living, and learning.
UDL applies those design principles to the science of how people learn, promoting the creation of materials that work for all learners, rather than a single, one-size-fits-all solution. This entails taking a flexible approach to learning design using tools that can be customized, personalized, and adjusted for variable learning needs (CAST, 2008).
A key understanding of UD is that accessible and inclusive design benefits everyone, not just users with disabilities. For example, closed captions have been shown to: improve reading ability, word recognition, vocabulary, and comprehension, and support language learning (Evmenova, 2008; Bowe & Kaufman, 2001; Linebarger, 2001; Rickelman, Henk, & Layton, 1991).
What other benefits would your students receive if all digital interactions were accessible and universally designed? Making UD/UDL principles a part of your purchasing and planning process from the beginning, and designing for accessibility first, saves time and money (Wentz, Jaeger, & Lazar, 2011). Working with your state or district level team to think, design, and plan from a UD perspective means that State, district, and school staff can strategize about how to present information in multiple ways, accessible to a wide variety of learners (CAST, 2018).
Making UDL and Accessibility a Part of Your Procurement Process
Education leaders must shift toward being proactive about accessibility, rather than reactive when problems arise. This begins with prioritizing procurement of accessible digital learning tools and resources.
Before you begin, remember that everyone is responsible for equity and access. To do this, commitment, leadership, and vision are critical. Schools and districts that create a vision and set goals for technology implementation are more likely to be successful than those where implementation is driven by the sudden availability of funds. The time to plan for implementing more accessible technology is now.
Working with your team, review your current technology landscape to collect data that addresses these questions:
- How are our users (e.g., students, families, community members) with disabilities currently using technology tools for learning? What barriers do they encounter? What assistive technologies do they use?
- Are all staff aware of the need for accessibility? Do they know how to make content accessible?
- Is accessibility a part of our technology decision-making?
The following steps can get you started, and ensure that your procurement process is driven by, and focused on, equal access for all students (Crossland, Gray, Reynolds, Wellington, Zhou, & Justo-Zavaleta, 2017):
- Start with your own office. Make it a priority to design all products you develop compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.
- Research accessibility legislation and ensure that all staff understand their legal responsibility to provide accessible learning materials and resources.
- Use checklists and guides (ex: WCAG 2.0 checklist) to perform an accessibility audit of website, instructional materials, content, etc. and to review existing accessibility policies.
- Let developers and publishers know that you expect digital textbooks, resources, and learning materials to be built according to industry accessibility standards and ensure that this language is included in all vendor contracts. Request VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template) statement in all technology contracts and purchases – look for technology companies that have clear accessibility statements.
- Build staff capacity around accessibility features and considerations when selecting or developing content. Monitor progress and create a process for continuous improvement through staff surveys to establish baseline, growth, and identify topics for future trainings.
- Develop and communicate an institution-wide expectation that accessibility is not only mandatory but also everyone’s responsibility.
- Set goals and benchmarks with clear timelines for success.
- Conduct regular accessibility audits and solicit feedback from stakeholders with disabilities. If errors are discovered, provide immediate training to relevant staff; a pattern of errors should trigger more in-depth training.
- Develop processes and procedures to ensure staff accountability when selecting technology or making content accessible – digital accessibility is not a “nice to have”, it is essential.
States and districts that have successfully implemented accessible technology strategies have at least one thing in common: they recognize that it takes a team to ensure that digital accessibility is part of the culture. Everyone has a role to play, including administrators, teachers, IT coordinators, PD professionals, and community leaders. As education leaders implement their ESSA plans, they must address digital accessibility at the same time to ensure compliance with federal disability legislation. Digital teaching and learning are woven throughout ESSA and provide the runway for educators to use technology in innovative ways to personalize instruction. To make this a reality, educators at all levels should ensure that digital learning is universally designed and accessible to meet the needs of all students.