EdTech and the Promise of Quality Education for All: On the Americans with Disabilities Act at Twenty-Five

By Benetech, posted on

Twenty-five years ago, on July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. This civil rights legislation ensures that individuals with disabilities have equal opportunity to participate in the mainstream of American life—to enjoy employment opportunities, purchase goods and services, and participate in State and local government programs and services. We have come a long way in eliminating discrimination against people with disabilities, but as we join the week-long recognition of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ADA, it is imperative to consider how to extend the ADA promise to a new generation of Americans.

Over fifty-six million Americans are classified as having a disability, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Social Security Administration estimates that just over one in four of today’s twenty year-olds will become disabled before reaching retirement age. Rapid technological advances are redefining nearly every area of our society and have the potential to revolutionize what is and will be possible for people with disabilities. Yet there are also substantial challenges that accompany this new world of opportunity. Case in point is the education field.

The education field is undergoing a transformation as a result of the digital revolution. People at all ages are learning with the aid of new tools, on their own terms, and investors are showing increased interest in disrupting education. According to venture capital database CB Insights, venture and equity financing for education technology companies soared to nearly $1.87 billion in 2014, up 55 percent from the year before, with several companies nearing the $1 billion valuation mark.

As a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, I love how my peers are applying innovative new approaches to improve education. As a leader of a technology nonprofit, however, I am interested in technology’s power to create social good. Which is why I believe we must keep asking ourselves: Who will benefit from the digital revolution in education? And how can we work together to ensure that massive trends in digital publishing, education technology, cloud computing, and big data create positive impact for all students?

The digital revolution can usher in a golden age of equality and improved educational opportunities for all students, including those with disabilities. There are now unprecedented opportunities to deliver more content to these students, on a wide range of devices, and to discover new paths of learning that would benefit them. While technology alone is no panacea for solving the world’s intractable problems, including those in the education space, it could make education inclusive, benefitting students across a wide range of learner variability. Consider how digital books, which can be used with a wide variety of assistive technology tools, are unlocking the world of content and knowledge for students with learning disabilities, or how 3D printing is poised to provide access to spatial concepts, especially in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, for students with visual impairments.

To make inclusive education a reality, however, students with disabilities must be considered in the design requirements of any new education technology. The ADA, among other things, through its standards for accessible design, ensures that people with disabilities are considered in the design of the built environment and of electronic media and websites. The companion concept of universal design for learning applies this idea to the student realm. But there is much left to be done to see to it that education is inclusive and accessible to all students. Now is the time to do so and take the ADA promise into the future.

In the rush to get market share and to guarantee return on investment, we see too many technologies that leave too many students behind—particularly students with disabilities, who could perhaps benefit most from technological innovation. For example, popular software features such as drag-and-drop interfaces and 3D animations are often inaccessible to students with disabilities. “We’ll include accessibility in the next version,” is a statement we hear all too often. Yet, given the cost to retrofit accessibility, that is a no-win proposition.

The reason that accessible design is not yet a widely adopted best practice in educational software isn’t typically lack of caring. Rather, it is insufficient knowledge of accessibility requirements and standards, of the potential impact of inaccessible designs on educational performance, and of where to go for assistance on this matter. Unlike large publishers and traditional education organizations, education technology startups do not have years of experience with accessibility compliance in the education market. These companies should adopt accessibility best practices not only due to legal compliance, but also because accessible design is good design. It benefits all students, not just those with disabilities. People with disabilities and professionals with expertise in educating students with disabilities should all be part of the product concept and design process in education technology. The good news is that technology makes it easier and cheaper to create accessible designs than ever before.

It is vital to bridge the gap between exciting education technologies and the communities of individuals with disabilities who need them. For the first time, books and curricula are truly “born digital” rather than born for paper delivery. That means they can now be “born accessible,” that is, made accessible from the outset, as an integral part of the development or publishing process. Technical standards that cover the web and the commercial publishing industry include accessibility, after years of effort, and can guide developers.

This work was inspired and supported by legislation that encourages both innovation and compliance, such as the ADA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—the law that governs the provision of special education programs to children with disabilities throughout the nation and whose 40th anniversary is coming up in November of this year. Both these legal mandates work in concert with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind, which is undergoing reauthorization right now.

The 25th anniversary of the ADA is a reminder that, at their best, policy and legislation support technological advances as well as benefits to society. We now need such balanced laws more than ever in order to stay committed to core principles of inclusion in the midst of massive technological change. The convergence of accessible digital materials, mobile devices, and promising new education technology tools that are cloud-connected can greatly empower students and teachers through personalized interfaces, multi-modal access formats, and better, timelier data on student learning progress. Yet, these advances are also accompanied by controversial issues, such as the risks to student privacy. To carry forward the ADA promise, we need regulations that mitigate these risks and still enable our students to benefit from the tools they need to succeed at school and beyond.

This is a critical and hopeful moment on the path towards equal opportunity and quality education that meets the learning needs of all American children. I hope you join the movement for realizing this dream.