The 4 P's of the TEACH Act: Prescription, Personal, Pressing, and Political

Lauren McLarney

One of the Federation’s top priorities this year is the Technology, Education and Accessibility in College and Higher Education Act (TEACH Act, HR 3505), a bill that addresses the problem of inaccessible instructional materials in postsecondary education. Every blind college student I have ever spoken with deals with the mind-numbing time suck that is asking for, getting and using educational technology. But it is more than annoying; this discrimination has devastating effects on your education. As a result, NABS has already stepped up to the plate with a number of behind-the-scenes initiatives related to the TEACH Act, but it is absolutely critical that the division continue its efforts. When advocating for the TEACH Act, please keep in mind the four P's – prescription, personal, pressing, and political.

The TEACH Act does three things: 1) Authorizes the U.S. Access Board to develop accessibility guidelines for electronic instructional materials used in postsecondary education so that those materials are usable by students with print disabilities; 2) Incentivizes institutions of higher education to follow those guidelines: any college or university that only uses technology that conforms to the guidelines will be deemed in compliance with Section 504 and Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In short, they will be given a safe harbor from litigation; and 3) Provides flexibility to schools, allowing them to use technology that does not conform to the guidelines provided they make modifications or accommodations that allow disabled students to enjoy the same educational benefits in an equally integrated and equally effective manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use as non-disabled students.

The first P is what the TEACH Act does: it creates a “prescription”. Current law mandates equal access in the classroom. Everybody knows how this manifests for people with physical disabilities because the law provides a nuanced prescription for how to make facilities accessible (i.e. wheelchair ramps have to be at this angle, door knobs have to be at this height, etc.). The federal government clarified that this law does indeed also apply to the use of the technology, but they failed to provide the same prescription. There is no universal set of guidelines defining accessibility in the context of technology, so most schools do not know what accessibility looks like. How could they? Moreover, the few who do certainly cannot afford to embrace accessibility: a fragmented demand across the higher education market means a fragmented approach to accessibility by developers. The guidelines created by the TEACH Act will serve as this missing prescription to give clarity to schools and guide the market.

The second P is “Personal.” While we wait for the players of the ecosystem of educational technology to collaborate on accessibility, the burdens fall on blind students. These burdens are personal to you because they are barriers to graduation. How can you be expected to succeed in college if you are denied access to critical course material? Talk of “guidelines,” “incentives,” and “flexibility” should not mask the very real, very personal problems that you face every time you start a new course. Inaccessible instructional materials mean delayed access to materials, the humiliation of your class project being converted into a group assignment so that you can work with a sighted friend, and the frustration of spending hours in the library when your classmates can peruse digital journal excerpts in just minutes in the privacy of their own room. America’s rhetoric touts “equality of opportunity” and rewards “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” If a blind student has the ambition, intellect, and work ethic to get to college, Congress cannot allow inaccessible technology to get in the way of their goals. Few things are more compelling than the personal stories of blind students. I know because I have heard hundreds of them.

The third P is “Pressing.” Congress must take action now! Every few months, you are into another semester and another round of needless discrimination. It does not have to be this way. The print world is inherently inaccessible – there is no way to make a print book accessible to a blind person other than converting it into Braille, audio, or some other accessible format. But a digital book allows the blind student to use the same materials as mainstream students, eliminating the need for specialized services, segregation, and accommodations. The opportunity to expand the circle of participation is missed when developers and schools fail to embrace accessibility, and because technology evolves so rapidly, every year that the TEACH Act is holed up in Congress means another inaccessible model and another innovation out of reach for blind students.

The fourth and final P is Political. In short, this bill is sexy, as in it is appealing to politicians! The TEACH Act implements the very first recommendation made by the AIM Commission Report, which means it has data from a Congressionally-authorized study proving that this is the right thing to do from a research perspective. The Federation’s partner on this bill is the Association of American Publishers, the lead trade association of the U.S. Publishing Industry. Over ten disability groups have endorsed the bill, and our sponsor is one of the most senior Republicans on the Committee. We have the data to back this up, the support of a major industry player, and the disability community on board – probably because this is a low-cost solution that creates no new mandates on schools, creates no liability for manufacturers, and harnesses the powers of capitalism to protect the rights of blind students in the classroom.

Because of these four P's, I hope you see not only why the TEACH Act is likely to move this Congress, but why it is so important for NABS to advocate for the legislation.