Friday, December 09, 2011

US Government Report on Accessible eBooks for University Students

The US Education Department has issued the "Report of the Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities". The report is in the form of a 981 Kbyte Microsoft Word document. Given that the commission is advising on access to documents for people with disabilities, it is unfortunate (and ironic) the commission did not release the report in the form of accessible web pages, nor as an eBook, so that it would be easier to access, particularly for those with a disability.

Executive Summary

The Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities (the Commission) was authorized under the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA) to address and seek remedies for the challenges encountered by students with print disabilities enrolled in postsecondary institutions (see Appendix C).

This report is based on the shared experiences and perspectives of the 19 stakeholder representatives who make up the Commission. These Commissioners speak with one voice in stating that barriers that would deny students with disabilities their rights to full and complete access to their educational experience are unacceptable in a society that values achievement through education.

After much research, testimony, and intense discussion, the Commission has prepared this report to provide insights into the array of barriers that often confront postsecondary students with disabilities. Among these barriers are instructional materials, technologies and operating systems which, in some circumstances, are transitory and, with effort, correctable. In other situations, however, challenges presented to making these necessary items accessible are more significant due to the limited resources of campus disability resource/service (DR/S) offices, the increasing complexity and modalities of emerging instructional materials and the delivery systems employed to utilize these materials. It is critical that these and other obstacles be removed.

The Commission understands that the collaborative efforts of the companies and individuals involved in the production of instructional materials and their delivery systems, disability advocates, institutions of higher education and students with disabilities themselves can—together—be powerful enough to overcome barriers to educational opportunity.

Further, the Commission believes that the solution to current and future challenges lies in the establishment of a vibrant market of thoughtfully developed instructional tools that are designed from the outset to meet the needs of the broadest possible range of students, including those with disabilities.

Congress charged the Commission with several important functions, including making recommendations to Congress and to the Secretary of Education. The Commission acknowledges that the current accessible instructional materials (AIM) landscape involves a variety of competing forces, many of which are in motion and some of which are in conflict. It can be seen

as an intersection of converging perspectives and practices. This intersection could incite a meaningful paradigm shift regarding the way accessibility in the postsecondary environment is embraced and implemented. Indeed, change could be profound over the next few years as the world of print—with its long-standing practices, policies and market dynamics—increasingly gives way to digital communication. With respect to AIM, the Commission believes that the impact of these innovations ultimately will be dramatic. We also acknowledge that change takes time, and that in the context of higher education in particular, the evolution of perspectives and organizational practices will not be immediate.

The complex infrastructure of creating, locating and acquiring AIM has changed since HEOA legislation was written and enacted in 2008. At the time of HEOA legislation, the AIM arena was focused almost entirely on creating alternate formats. Today, it is shifting towards a more market-based, digital response that, in some cases, obviates the need for alternate formats. Currently, market-based and licensed alternate format distribution models such as CourseSmart and the AccessText Network exist that were only envisioned when the HEOA was drafted. For the most commonly used postsecondary textbooks, DR/S offices can now rapidly acquire publisher files or permission to scan books, determine whether another school has already created an alternate format that is available for licensing, and determine whether they or individual students can acquire digital versions from digital retailers. Throughout its study, the Commission viewed media-rich products from a number of digital materials and software vendors that evinced a strong commitment to accessibility. The Commission’s challenge has been to describe how leveraging these new possibilities can dramatically improve the delivery of AIM, immediately and over time.

The Commission heard testimony from more than 50 witnesses about the persisting needs of individuals with disabilities (both students and faculty) and those who provide support to these individuals at the postsecondary level. The Commission heard testimony from many stakeholder groups, including textbook publishers, software developers, faculty, advocacy groups, technology experts, government agencies and others. Most of these groups are working to develop more effective, balanced solutions to address the intricate challenge of ensuring that students with disabilities receive accessible instructional materials in a timely, cost effective manner.

The Commission also heard testimony from students with disabilities, D/RS providers and faculty that conveyed a variety of concerns pertaining to AIM in the postsecondary environment that still exist. This testimony revealed that some students with

disabilities have experienced a variety of challenges, including blocked access to educational opportunities and matriculation failure resulting from inaccessible learning materials and/or their delivery systems. Testimony also indicated that DR/S and other university personnel often must engage in labor-intensive practices to provide AIM for students with disabilities. Each of the Commission’s five in-person meetings thus reflected that while there are a variety of emerging improved practices in the area of AIM, there is still persistent unmet need.

Despite profound differences in opinion on how change should occur, Commission members have achieved consensus on a number of fundamental issues. Commission members agree that a potentially viable accessible digital marketplace is emerging in some areas, but there is not agreement that this progress is occurring within all components of the instructional materials enterprise. While textbook publishers and a number of e-text vendors are moving to incorporate accessibility into their products, some developers of web applications, social media and productivity software used to support postsecondary instructional practice are less pro-active.

To facilitate the incorporation of accessibility features in technologies used in postsecondary settings, the Commission’s recommendations urge Congress to take action on a number of key issues. Such issues include, but are not limited to, a) establishing a process for creating uniform accessibility guidelines for industry and consumers, b) revisiting the components of existing copyright exception, c) assessing AIM’s relationship to current research and instructional materials access taking into account the rights of content owners and d) re-emphasizing the importance of compliance with civil rights laws for institutions of higher education so that the needs of students with disabilities are more adequately addressed by postsecondary educational institutions.

Further, the Commission urges Congress to establish mechanisms for assessing the market progress that all Commission members hope will occur to support additional means of incentivizing content developers to incorporate accessibility during product design and to reinforce the necessity for open source instructional materials to be held to the same standards for access as other materials. The Commission has provided a series of specific recommendations for promoting these outcomes.

The Commission believes that the identification of need for, acquisition of, and use of accessible instructional materials are the administrative responsibility of every higher education institution, not simply the task of DR/S offices. To expand this understanding and to facilitate procurement processes and to support personnel in becoming
far more sensitive to and knowledgeable about accessible instructional materials, the Commission has crafted a set of capacity-building recommendations for postsecondary personnel and students.

Finally, the Commission believes strongly in the capabilities of well-designed and innovative models as a mechanism for promoting effective change. Therefore it has developed recommendations for model demonstration projects that promote the effective use of AIM in the postsecondary environment through training and innovation. The Commission posits that solutions developed for students with disabilities have the potential to incite innovative practices that will improve postsecondary education for all postsecondary students. ...

From: Report of the Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities", US Education Department, 6 December 2011

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