Policy | News

Ed Tech Not Immune from Civil Rights Obligations, Feds Advise

As technology increasingly permeates classroom learning, school leaders need to be increasingly active in meeting the needs of students with disabilities. That was the word out of Washington May 26 as the Obama administration issued guidance on school compliance with federal anti-discrimination law.

The United States Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights Thursday issued a "dear colleague letter" to public K-12 institutions (as well as a separate letter to higher education institutions) and a set of answers to frequently asked questions that expands on a letter sent out exclusively to college and university presidents last June (DCL).

In the FAQ, OCR makes explicit some legal obligations of all education institutions, including K-12 institutions, to "ensure equal access to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of the technology for all students, including students with disabilities." At the same time, the FAQ said the intent is not to stifle the use of new and emerging technologies, but to "remind everyone that equal access for students with disabilities is the law and must be considered as new technology is integrated into the educational environment."

The document also makes clear the obligations outlined in the original dear colleague letter:

  • Apply to all K-12 faculty and staff;
  • Apply to all forms of emerging technologies, not just book readers;
  • Include pilot programs and other short-term initiatives;
  • Are applicable to online schools;
  • Apply to online course materials as well; and
  • Apply to schools and classes even when no students may have a disability.

Those obligations, the documents argue, are not new, but rather clarifications of existing law, specifically Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

"Technology can be a critical investment in enhancing educational opportunities for all students," said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights within ED, in a separate statement released by OCR today. "The Department [of Education] is firmly committed to ensuring that schools provide students with disabilities equal access to the benefits of technological advances."

The FAQ document also suggests questions school leaders should address when trying to determine whether a new technology is accessible or not. And, for times when an accessible option is not available, it provides guidance for "accommodations or modifications that permit [those with disabilities] to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner."

ED's press office today also noted that the department has asked for increased funding for students with disabilities in the fiscal year 2012 federal budget.

The complete "dear colleague" memo to K-12 leaders can be accessed on ED's news portal here. The compliance FAQ can be found on the Office of Civil Rights site here.

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidrnagel/ .