Today, the Departments of Justice and Education announced the publication of a joint 'Dear Colleague' letter reaffirming the agencies' commitment to ensuring students with disabilities have equal access to emerging technologies in institutions of higher education.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the two departments share responsibility for protecting the rights of college and university students with disabilities. These landmark laws bar institutions of higher education from requiring the use of technology that is inaccessible to individuals with disabilities, unless the institutions provide accommodations or modifications that would permit an individual with a disability to use the technology in an equally effective manner.
"Technology can be a driving force in making equal educational opportunity a reality," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "Given what technology now makes possible, no student should be denied the opportunity to benefit from an enhanced educational experience based simply on a visual disability."
The new 'Dear Colleague' letter is in response to the use of Kindle electronic book readers by certain colleges and universities. Kindle devices are not accessible to students who are blind or those with low vision. While many of the devices have a text-to-speech function, which "reads" on-screen print out loud, they lack menus and controls that individuals who are blind or have low vision can navigate.
The Department of Justice recently entered into settlement agreements with colleges and universities that used the Kindle as part of a pilot project, and the Department of Education has resolved similar complaints against colleges and universities. As a result, the universities agreed not to purchase, require, or recommend use of Kindle devices, or any other electronic book reader that is not accessible, unless reasonable accommodations are made.
"Institutions of learning have an obligation to equal and accessible opportunities for all. Electronic book readers can and should be made accessible to individuals with disabilities by speaking text and menu options aloud while the user navigates the device, as well as tailoring other features for students who are blind and have low vision," said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
"Protecting the civil rights of students with disabilities is an essential part of the work of the federal government," said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education. "Accessible technology can help all students, especially students with disabilities, learn in new and exciting ways."
For a copy of the new 'Dear Colleague' letter, please visit http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-20100629.html. For more information about the rights of students with disabilities, please visit http://www2.ed.gov/policy/rights/guid/ocr/disability.html.