Access and Academia, Again

A podium, with its doors open to see technology inside, and a touchscreen control console on topLooking through my Google reader I saw that the National Federation of the Blind has filed a wide-ranging complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights over a number of accessibility failures at Penn State University. NFB argues that civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act are being violated, given the inaccessibility of PSU’s websites – including the Office of Disability Services – as well as their online course management software (Angel) and assorted other campus technologies. Coming less than a year after the settlement of suits regarding Kindle use at Arizona State and elsewhere, it’s depressing to see that the issues surrounding technology and accessibility have still not filtered through higher education to become central parts of technological development, licensing, or innovation.

Though many of the cited failures of accessibility are fairly common problems, it is their complaint about “smart” podiums that drew my attention. The touchscreen podiums in classes on campus do not have alternate means of interaction, leaving blind faculty dependent on others to control the lighting, multimedia presentations, microphone volume and other features of the wired classroom. I use similar podiums for teaching at my own university, and will be looking to see whether they offer alternative means of interaction when I’m back in the classroom on Monday.

As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, there are hopes that this suit could be resolved in such a way that “Penn State and the Education Department would develop a template for accessible technology that could be adopted by other colleges.” Certainly, the Kindle suit resulted in a number of changes regarding pilot programs with e-readers, and commitments to only attempt to reinstate e-reader programs with technology that was more accessible, as well as a strong warning to other colleges. Though it’s lamentable that this is necessary, twenty years after the ADA, these cases are exactly the kind of potentially broad-ranging challenges that could strengthen the civil rights protections of the ADA and the accessibility processes used in US institutes of higher education.

In other ADA news, however, there was a hearing held today about the impact of instituting ADA compliance for small businesses. Check out the Justice for All blog for more details.

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