Accessible Classrooms Level the Playing Field
Recently I chaired a Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing on the promise of accessible technology and its challenges and opportunities. It was the latest in a series of hearings convened since last year to explore issues that impact the employment prospects of Americans with disabilities. Of course our overall goal is to boost labor-force participation within this community and provide a ladder for every American to join the middle class.
Earlier hearings focused on: Americans with intellectual disabilities; ways that higher education can promote employment for people who are deaf and hard of hearing; transportation accessibility; and state and private strategies for employment of people with the most significant disabilities.
This was also the first in a series of hearings we will hold on the use of education technology to improve student achievement. Innovations in this arena are already transforming instruction in some schools and have the potential to personalize the learning experience of all students nationwide.
Future education technology hearings will examine topics such as blended learning, professional development and open educational resources. This is a crucial topic because the American Dream is slipping beyond reach for those who lack a quality education.
In 2010, the College Board reported that a college graduate would earn 66 percent more money over his or her lifetime than a high school graduate. The average bachelor’s degree graduate earns just
under $56,000 per year, while the average high school graduate brings in just under $34,000 per year—a $22,000 a year difference.
For those who don’t graduate high school, average annual earnings are likely to be even less—just over $24,000 a year. Clearly, lack of access to a quality education is a major obstacle to achieving a middle-class lifestyle.
The educational technology of the past was chalk and a blackboard. Today’s classroom technology includes a computer and a whiteboard, electronic textbooks and advanced software. It also includes
libraries that have digital access to millions of books and journal articles as well as reports and three-dimensional images of artifacts from around the world. Our classrooms have blossomed with new possibilities and opportunities over the past 15 years, thanks to these amazing advances.
Technology also has the potential to level the playing field for students with disabilities. Screen readers allow them to access digital content. They can change the size of the print and of the background colors so they can better see what’s on their computer screen. Those with learning disabilities and those with visual impairments can tap audio books. Devices such as iPods can be set to aurally scan listings of music, books or lectures. These are all examples of accessibility built into everyday tools at our fingertips.
Despite the plethora of accessible technology, there are too many instances when classrooms are not equipped to meet the needs of all students, even though modifications might cost only hundreds of dollars. The level of access to information in America’s classrooms continues to be uneven for students with disabilities.
As technology proliferates in schools, the resources used to teach students become more varied and rich, including things never originally intended for instructional purposes, such as video clips from popular movies or TV shows, scanned copies or artifacts, and small market publications that become valued teaching tools.
We need to be ambitious in ensuring the accessibility of texts from large-scale publishers, devices from technology designers, boutique publications, websites and software, all of which are used in prekindergarten through 12th grade and postsecondary classrooms.
In December, the US Department of Education’s Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials issued a report on accessible materials in postsecondary education. It set forth this admirable goal: “Individuals with disabilities must have equal opportunity and discrimination-free access to full participation and success in post-secondary education.” Further, it asserted that access to curriculum and instructional materials is a civil right, one that all students should enjoy equally.
Technology and curricula designed to make maximum use of technology are transforming the American classroom. We have both a moral and practical obligation to ensure these advances are accessible to everyone. And this accessible technology and curricula should not be an afterthought. They should be a built into the design of the classroom from the beginning, and the curricula should be presented in multiple ways whenever possible, including words, graphics, sound and movement.
The harsh reality is that if the information and materials used to teach students are not accessible to all, then we relegate some individuals to a second-class education and poorer employment prospects even before they embark upon their careers.
Senator Tom Harkin