In December 2019 both the United States House of Representatives and Senate introduced a bill that has been pending in Congress for the past few sessions. This bipartisan legislation is the Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education Act, also known by advocates as the AIM High Act. H.R.5312/S.3095 would authorize the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the Secretary of Education to establish an independent commission made up of individuals recognized as experts in their fields related to accessible online learning for Students with Disabilities at colleges or universities. The work of the commission would ensure students with disabilities are afforded equal access to courses like our nondisabled student peers while attending online courses; to help instructors along with colleges and universities understand ways to make their materials accessible for all; and to encourage organizations making fully accessible software so we all may use them independently. Some examples of electronic learning and technologies may include, but not limited to online learning websites like Blackboard, ensuring any PDF documents uploaded to the course webpage are accessible, and ensuring assistive technology may interact with the materials leading to true independence while fully participating in the class. These are important goals because without ensuring students with disabilities have an equal playing field, we would continue to be left behind. Not being able to access the online materials in college sets many of us up to fail, while the purpose of getting a higher education is to help us succeed.
Creating guidelines definitely would be helpful for instructors and postsecondary education institutions because it would give a resource to help increase the likelihood of equal access in the learning spaces. In higher education there are multiple kinds of technologies used for conducting research like collecting references for educational studies or statistical software for calculating massive amount of quantitative data. The majority of these software packages are not accessible with screen reading software which is the way blind individuals use computers. As a blind doctoral student at the University of Rochester, I have experienced many kinds of software the University either requires or highly encourages students to use for conducting research. One software in particular called SPSS claimed to be accessible with the screen reading software Job Access With Speech (JAWS), but after trying to use the software on two different computers both a PC and a Mac along with trying three different screen readers: JAWS, Voiceover, and NVDA, none of them would allow me to independently use SPSS. Other software packages I have learned about for qualitative research are NVivo which also presents accessibility challenges. These are two examples of why it is important for the manufactures to make the software accessible resulting in inclusion for all students in higher education. Because of not being able to independently access the features of SPSS, my learning was negatively impacted while taking a required course on quantitative research methods. At times, I would be weeks behind my sighted peers because we had to figure out a way for Excel using JAWS to do the same thing SPSS could accomplish. Because of this issue, Excel was unable to do many of the tasks that we were required to perform using SPSS. I make these observations, not to criticize the University of Rochester, but to call to action the importance of the owners of the software not understanding the importance of true equal access.
The National Association of Blind Students seeks additional stories to my own and if you are aware of Students with Disabilities not only blindness resulting in an unequal learning opportunity due to accessibility issues, we would greatly appreciate if you would have them submit testimony via the following google form:
Thank you to anyone who completes the above google form illustrating the importance of equal access for all! We would like to thank Representatives Phil Roe (R-TN-1) & Joe Courtney (D-CT-2) for their collaboration to introduce H.R. 5312 and for Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), John Tester (D-Montana), and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) on their joint introduction of S. 3095.