This guest post was authored by Alison Carrinski

Kindle.jpgEmerging technologies, such as e-book readers, seem to be everywhere and growing in numbers.  E-book readers offer students the ability to download books instantaneously and carry hundreds of books on a hand-held device.  But given that some e-book readers do not have text-to-speech functionality or Braille displays, what should a school or community college consider before introducing this type of emerging technology into classrooms?

Schools and community colleges must comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when introducing any emerging technology, including e-book readers, into classrooms.  One year ago, the U.S. Departments of Education (DOE) and Justice (DOJ) issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” that sums up the issue of compliance as follows:

“Requiring use of an emerging technology in a classroom environment when the technology is inaccessible to an entire population of individuals with disabilities—individuals with visual disabilities—is discrimination prohibited by the [ADA and Section 504] unless those individuals are provided accommodations or modifications that permit them to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.”

In follow up to questions from this original “Dear Colleague Letter,” the DOE recently issued additional guidance with some practical tips on how to ensure that emerging technologies are accessible, or can be made accessible, to students with disabilities.  For example, may a school or community college that makes e-book readers available to students provide traditional alternative media, such as print books, as an appropriate accommodation under the ADA and Section 504?  Probably not, because any alternative media for visually-impaired students must provide access to the benefits of technology that other students receive in an equally effective and equally integrated manner. 

However, schools do not always need to provide visually-impaired students with the same form of emerging technology that it provides to other students.  For example, take a school library that makes e-book readers available for students to loan.  To comply with Section 504 and the ADA, the library may provide access to the same educational benefits by providing students tablet computers which can access the same electronic books and which have text-to-speech functionality.

As another example, a high school teacher may want to incorporate video clips into an online homework assignment, but is unable to include audio in the video clips.  To accommodate visually impaired students appropriately, the teacher could create audio clips that describe the corresponding video clips that are accessible by students using screen readers.  In this case, the teacher may need to provide additional time for students using screen readers to complete assignments or tests.

When considering whether and how to use emerging technologies in the classroom, determine whether the technology is accessible to all students and, if not, what alternatives exist that will provide the same access to educational benefits in an equally effective and integrated manner.