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A new USU program aims to make school materials accessible for disabled students

A person uses a braille screen reader in front of a classic keyboard.
A braille screen reader, which translates digital text into braille for blind and low-vision individuals.

Starting this fall, a new Utah State University program will help education agencies across the nation improve the accessibility of school materials like textbooks, lectures, and websites.

Getting access to school materials can be tricky for disabled students — those who struggle with manual dexterity, for example, may be unable to scroll through a website, and image-based PDFs can’t be read by a screen reader, which translates text into speech or braille for blind and low-vision individuals.

The National Center on Accessible Digital Educational Materials and Instruction, or NCADEMI, is designed to make sure students with physical, sensory, and learning disabilities have the same quality and timeliness of access to school materials as their non-disabled peers.

Even when schools are aware of students’ accessibility needs, they often lack the knowledge, training, and services to follow through. This often leads to a delay in disabled students or parents getting needed materials.

“Sometime the materials are never provided,” said Cynthia Curry, director of NCADEMI. “We hear those stories a lot.”

When materials are provided, they may also be lower quality or harder to use.

Standards of accessibility

Curry said striving for accessibility doesn’t just give disabled students equal access and opportunity — it's also the law. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that state and local governments have accessible services, programs, and activities.

In April, the Department of Justice also published a new rule on accessibility requirements for state and local government entities, with deadlines for compliance in the next few years.

The rule says that all materials provided by these entities should be accessible for everyone out of the box, and if they're not, they should be capable of being retrofitted to become accessible.

“That’s less desirable, because oftentimes it can’t be retrofitted,” Curry said. “And then we’re going to really interfere with the timely provision of those materials, with the same ease of use, the effectiveness of the tool, whether it can be integrated with the same level of equality as standard materials.”

There are systems in place to make print and text-based digital materials accessible in a timely manner, thanks to a provision in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but dynamic digital materials are harder or impossible to retrofit.

Who the program will assist

General technical assistance will be available for the public on the program’s website, including publications, recorded webinars, and other resources.

“We’ll have various ways that people can reach out to us with any number of questions or concerns they might have,” Curry said.

The program will also provide targeted technical assistance to five groups — state and local education agencies; parent information and training centers; pre-service teacher and administrator preparation programs; Part C lead agencies, which work with disabled infants and toddlers; and other technical assistance centers funded by the Office of Special Education Programs.

Within that technical assistance, NCADEMI also hopes to build stronger partnerships between vendors and educational agencies, which Curry describes as a “vacuum” currently.

“There’s really assumptions on both sides about what’s going on on either side of that equation,” Curry said. “And of course, both need to work together to make sure that students who require accessibility have what they need in a timely manner.”

Foundation of accessibility expertise

Much of the program’s expertise comes from two national accessibility programs at USU’s Institute for Disability Research, Policy and Practice: Web Accessibility in Mind and the Center for Technical Assistance and Excellence in Special Education.

“[The center] for a good 40 years now has been providing support to state education agencies and local school districts throughout the nation on meeting federal law around special education,” said Brenda Smith, principal investigator with NCADEMI.

WebAIM, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, is internationally known for their work in general online accessibility, including trainings, accessibility evaluation, instructional materials, and research.

NCADEMI also continues the work of the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials for Learning.

Looking forward

The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, which awarded a $7.2 million grant over the next four years. Curry and Smith both felt confident that need and support for this program, and work like it, will continue far beyond that.

“We know that there's been this continuous need from schools for technical assistance to ensure accessibility of materials that are compatible with the assistive technology that students with disabilities use,” Curry said. “And we don't anticipate that going away.”

“We’re here to help them with that, and we always will be,” Smith added. “It’s what we’re passionate about, and we’re here to make sure that students with disabilities have equal opportunities with the same outcomes as their non-disabled peers.”

NCADEMI officially launches on October 1.

Duck is a general reporter and weekend announcer at UPR, and is studying broadcast journalism and disability studies at USU. They grew up in northern Colorado before moving to Logan in 2018, so the Rocky Mountain life is all they know. Free time is generally spent with their dog, Monty, listening to podcasts, reading or wishing they could be outside more.