From the Editor: Each year, the National Federation of the Blind pursues a legislative agenda to further the rights of blind Americans in all aspects of life. In this post, we learn more about the TEACH Act, which is a specific version of an ongoing effort to standardize accessibility standards in higher education.
Hi friends. This is the first of what will hopefully be a recurring column about the TEACH Act. First, the article includes important background that won’t be repeated in subsequent postings, but will hopefully be useful to Slate readers that may not be familiar with the bill. Second, the article includes chapters that will indeed be repeated in future articles. Current status, which … well, it’s obvious … NABS Support, which covers recent contributions made by the student division, Press, which has a list of articles related to the TEACH Act that were published since the last Slate, and StAction, which announces action items for students to keep the momentum going. This is your bill, so it will take your advocacy to make it law. Anyone who has met me knows I talk a little too much, so the article is long. Thanks for giving me your attention this month, and I hope to catch you all back here in the next Slate. For regular updates, be sure to visit www.nfb.org/teach.
The Technology, Education and Accessibility in College and Higher Education (TEACH) Act (HR 3505/S 2060) is a bill that aims to address the lack of accessible instructional materials in postsecondary education. The TEACH Act creates criteria that is missing from current law by authorizing the creation of voluntary accessibility guidelines for electronic instructional material and related information technology used in postsecondary education. This includes any course content like books, journals, articles, and web pages, and any electronic platform or delivery system like the hardware, firmware, software, and applications students use to manipulate that criteria. Because the guidelines are voluntary, the TEACH Act also stimulates their use by offering a safe harbor from litigation. Any school that only uses technology that conforms to those guidelines will be deemed in compliance with titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. By creating one voluntary path to compliance with the law, schools are incentivized to use the guidelines. The more schools that conform to the guidelines, the more materials will pop up in the market. The TEACH Act does a third thing, which is what I call the “catch-all.” This provision simply says that, while schools are under no obligation to follow these guidelines specifically, they are obligated to continue meeting the mandates of current law. If a school does not want to use technology that conforms to the guidelines, they still must provide an accommodation, modification or alternative that allows the blind student to enjoy all of the same services in an equally integrated, equally effective manner with substantially equivalent ease of use. This allows flexibility for small schools that cannot afford to follow the guidelines until the market is changed and cost is reduced, and allows large, innovative schools to invest in and explore new ways of providing accessibility that might not be considered by the guidelines.
HR 3505 was introduced last November by Congressman Tom Petri in the House, and currently has 52 bipartisan cosponsors. The Senate companion was introduced in February by Senators Warren and Hatch, and currently has 5 bipartisan cosponsors. Over the summer, we learned that Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, included provisions in his draft of the Higher Education Opportunity Act reauthorization that was mirrored after the TEACH Act. As many students probably know, stand-alone bills rarely move on their own. Rather, they collect cosponsor support and are later “roped-into” a larger vehicle that Congress is likely to consider and move. Although some stand-alone bills do move and pass, like the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, the whole “how a bill becomes a law” process is a bit of a myth. The fact that a provision mirrored after the TEACH Act appears in a reauthorization draft shows that the bipartisan support of the stand-alone bills is gaining traction with the right people, and will likely be considered when the time is right.
Currently, the bill has been endorsed by 20 major groups, with most recent additions including the Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs, National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, Home School Legal Defense Association, National Court Reporters Association, and the Association of University Centers on Disabilities. Big deal groups, folks!
In September, right when school started, we got wind that the higher education lobby, which is generally represented by the American Council on Education, sent a letter to Senator Harkin. In the letter, ACE said the TEACH Act provision created an “impossible to meet standard” that will do the opposite of what it intends to do. This was the first documented statement of the higher education lobby, and it frustrated us. President Riccobono [responded in a blog post] (https://nfb.org/blog/vonb-blog/unachievable-or-unwanted-why-ace-opposed-...). Thus began a slew of jabs in the press between NFB and ACE, which culminated in an October meeting to find common ground. Stay tuned for more information.
That same week, we released a video on our YouTube page called [“A Lesson on the TEACH Act”] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mU4MBIluhD0) featuring student stars Jamie Principato, Sean Whalen, Deja Powell and Gabe Cazares.
* Blog post: [Should TEACH Act language appear in the Higher Education Act? NCDAE and WebAIM weigh in] (http://ncdae.org/blog/teach-act/)
* Blog post: [Technology must accommodate disabilities] (http://www.dailyorange.com/2014/10/technology-must-accomodate-disabilities/)
* Inside Higher Ed: [Stable Priorities, Unstable Times] (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/10/01/survey-shows-training-and-...)
* USA Today: [Bills in Congress could mean equal digital access for disabled students] (http://college.usatoday.com/2014/09/28/bills-in-congress-could-mean-equa...)
* Chronicle of Higher Education: [For Bill on Disabled Access to Online Teaching Materials, the Devil's in the Details](http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/for-bill-on-disabled-access-to-on...)
* Inside Higher Ed: [Fight Over Digital Accessibility] (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/09/19/higher-ed-associations-dis...)
* Diverse Education: [Disability Issues Continue to Arise on Campus] (http://diverseeducation.com/article/66874/)
* Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed: [A New Obstacle for Students With Disabilities by Kyle Shachmut] (http://chronicle.com/article/A-New-Obstacle-for-Students/148795/)
* Boston Globe op-ed: [On education technology, college lobbyists are keeping disabled students behind by Kyle Shachmut](http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2014/09/05/education-technology-colle...)
* Montana Kaiman: [The Invisible: Not All UM Students Have Equal Access to Education] (http://m.montanakaimin.com/mobile/features/article_5c604680-3480-11e4-92...)
* Blog post: [Unachievable or Unwanted: Why Is ACE Opposed to Accessibility Guidelines?] (https://nfb.org/blog/vonb-blog/unachievable-or-unwanted-why-ace-opposed-...)
* YouTube video: [A Lesson on the TEACH Act] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mU4MBIluhD0&feature=youtu.be)
* Salt Lake Tribune op-ed: [Hatch leads on access for disabled, but other Utahns fall short by Sachin Pavithran] (http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/opinion/57765899-82/guidelines-students-tec...)
The YouTube video, [A Lesson on the TEACH Act] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mU4MBIluhD0&feature=youtu.be) was published on September 9, 2014. Four students were bold enough to be part of the video, and Jamie, Sean, Deja and Gabe spoke articulately about the bill and honestly about their personal problems with inaccessible instructional materials. But it was more than just those four students that made the video a huge success. The video currently has 1,368 views. If you look at the six videos that have been posted since, and the five videos that were posted before, this video has surpassed some by upwards of ten times the amount of views. In fact, it is one of the highest-viewed videos on our YouTube page, and some of those videos have been up there for years! Now I want all of our video content to reach thousands of views, but this says something about the power of the student division and your use of technology. NABS represents some of the most tech savvy people in our organization, and because this video tells all of your stories, you made sure it was seen. Bravo, and thanks for the support! And don’t worry, I will probably never appear in another video. That’s enough footage of me to last a lifetime.
NABS also showed itself to be the most active division on social media. After ACE’s letter to Harkin, President Riccobono’s blog, and the series of op-eds and responses, you all took to Twitter. In just a two day span of time, ACE was tweeted somewhere between 54-100 times. This number might seem low, but it is actually very impressive considering that I foolishly forgot to tell you to include #TEACH in all of your tweets. That made it a little tough to measure – hah – but if we could get that kind of coverage without being able to truly measure the mobilization, imagine how good we can do next time? Your tweets not only got ACE’s attention, it encouraged other groups to Tweet. In fact, the Association of University Centers on Disability (AUCD) was not an official endorser of the bill. After the students started tweeting, AUCD retweeted somebody’s message and then sent their own. That caught our eye, and now – not only are they endorsers of the bill, they are actively advocating for its passage. Way to go student tweeters!
In Kyle Shachmut’s Boston Globe op-ed, he called out the few Presidents of institutions of higher education in Massachusetts that sit on the ACE board. Some in the student division noticed this tactic and took similar action. Gabe Cazares sent a letter to Diana Natalicio, President of the University of Texas at El Paso and ACE board member, urging her to do right by him and other students with disabilities and speak out in support of the bill. Similarly, Sean Whalen called into a radio program featuring Northwestern University president Morton Schapiro and asked him if he would support the TEACH Act. These are the kind of actions that mean so much more coming from students. Advocacy 101 tells us that Diana Natalicio is more likely to respond to a letter coming from a Texas student than she is to one from a national organization. Nice job, Gabe!
In Nevada, law student Kimie Beverly met with Congressman Heck from Nevada. She had done her research and successfully advocated for the bill and convinced him to support the TEACH Act. He became our 52nd cosponsor, and the 3rd Republican from the Committee to support the bill. Way to go, Kimie!
Action item 1: Getting support from your school. Please follow Gabe’s example and send a letter to the President of your school. Explain how inaccessible instructional material is damaging to your education and puts your school at risk for litigation. Share how there is a solution in Congress that will remedy this problem without creating any new requirements for schools, and that you hope he/she will do what is best for you and for your school by supporting the bill. Please note: we are not asking schools to speak out against ACE. We are currently in discussions with them; rather, we are urging schools to write letters admitting that accessibility is a problem, partly because they do not know what accessibility looks like and partly because the market has not been properly stimulated. If they want to endorse the TEACH Act as a good solution – fantastic. If they don’t, a letter admitting that something has to be done is still a powerful tool to show Members of Congress from your state.
Action item 2: Getting Republican cosponsors. Please follow Kimie’s example and meet with your Member of Congress before the end of this session. If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a hundred times: advocacy does not stop at Washington Seminar. Your Members of Congress have been in the district more than they have been in DC over the last two months. They will be coming back in November for a very short period of time to probably do nothing, and then they will go back again! Take advantage of this time to meet with them and ask them to cosponsor the bill. I am still only looking for Republicans – I need to keep our numbers even – but securing cosponsors now will make it easier to start off next Congress with solid support.
Thanks again for giving me so much space in the Slate and for all of your help so far on the TEACH Act. I hope to appear in the next edition and look forward to seeing you all at Washington Seminar. Good luck on midterms and finals – cheers!