Technology is everywhere. It’s in our homes, offices, and classrooms. We use it for business and for leisure. But for so many people, technology isn’t just a convenience –it’s a necessity. For those individuals, technology makes engaging with the rest of the world possible. For some, it makes reading or hearing possible. And for many, technology isn’t a luxury; it’s an uphill battle just to have access to it.
For individuals with learning disabilities (LD), reading and writing can often be a challenge. Technology today has opened up new worlds for students and adults with learning disabilities like dyslexia and dysgraphia. Text-to-speech, or speech recognition, software allows written words to be read aloud and spoken words to be typed on a device. This technology makes it possible for some individuals to fully access written materials and engage in everyday life just as people without disabilities do.
But it wasn’t always possible. And even today, it’s an ongoing effort to ensure that students and adults with disabilities are provided with technology that allows them to have such access.
How Does the Law Help?
The Access Board is an agency within the government that works to ensure equal access for people with disabilities. As part of their work, the Access Board creates accessibility standards for the government relating to transportation, communication, technology, and other fields. Specifically, the Access Board works to ensure access to technology and accessible formats, which is required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This part of the law requires the federal government to ensure that individuals with disabilities (including employees of the federal government and also the general public) have equal access to and use of electronic content.
As a requirement of Section 508, the Access Board sets the guidelines and standards to ensure that “electronic content” is accessible to individuals with disabilities. The definition of “electronic content” is currently being debated, but as proposed by the Access Board, would include anything that is public-facing, such as government websites and materials posted on those sites, blog posts, and social media. In order to make that content accessible, the Access Board sets standards, including technical requirements, that all electronic and information technology must meet. The Access Board reviews these standards every so often and makes changes to reflect updates in technology. In February, the Access Board revisited these standards, proposed some changes, and accepted public comment on them.
How does Section 508 impact people with LD?
This year, the Access Board proposed some important changes to these standards, some of which were positive. For example, the Access Board proposed incorporating specific technical specifications – WCAG 2.0 – into federal regulations. These standards would bring Section 508 into alignment with the standards used by other organizations, which is an important update. In addition, the regulations would improve interoperability among assistive technology platforms so that users would face fewer obstacles when using multiple systems or applications.
However, none of the regulations mention or consider the unique needs of individuals with LD. While the existing regulations require that alternate formats (such as audio) be provided to anyone who needs them, the new regulations will limit access to only two categories of individuals with disabilities: individuals who are blind or have low vision. By not including other types of disabilities in this eligibility list, individuals with LD (or other disabilities) who require a format such as audio to access the content will be denied it.
Equal Access Means Access for All
Technology – something ubiquitous and widely used in society – should not be denied to those who need it most. Where existing technology can allow nearly anyone access to electronic content, it must not be withheld from any group of individuals who need it. These proposed Section 508 regulations can and should do a better job of meeting the needs of all individuals with disabilities.