Free, Accessible Technology Tools

Accessible software

Meeting; Screen sharing

Zoom meetings

Word processing, spreadsheets, etc.

Microsoft Office online

Accessible Books

Newspapers and Magazines

  • NFB Newsline (a free audio news service for anyone who is blind, low-vision, deafblind, or otherwise print-disabled that offers access to more than 500 publications, emergency weather alerts, job listings, and more, provided by the National Federation of the Blind)
  • Braille Monitor (the flagship publication of the National Federation of the Blind covering the events and activities of the NFB, addressing the issues we face as blind people, and highlighting NFB members)
  • Future Reflections (a quarterly magazine for parents and teachers of blind children that offers resources and information based on the National Federation of the Blind’s positive philosophy of blindness):

Bookshare Student Guidance

Which students qualify for free subscriptions underwritten by OSEP?

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has funded access to Bookshare for all qualified U.S. students in K-12, post-secondary, graduate and continuing education classes.

“Students” for OSEP funding include enrolled in classes that meet each of the following conditions: (1) are offered by an educational institution, (2) are on-going for a period of at least a month, and (3) are part of a course of study or curriculum that follow a named set of course-work. Both in-person and distance education classes are included.

What kind of “classes” count for OSEP funding?

Some examples of qualifying classes include:

  • Classes that lead to a degree or certificate
  • Professional development courses
  • Guide dog classes
  • Computer training classes
  • Hadley School distance education classes

Examples of activities that don’t qualify:

  • Short courses (less than one month duration)
  • 1:1 tutoring or training
  • Non-academic courses such as an exercise classes

How do you get an individual account if the student already has an institutional account?

If the student already has a student login to Bookshare from his/her institution (school), it is easy to add an Individual Membership. By following this method, your student will have easy access to books assigned by the teacher as well as individually-downloaded books. As explained in this video, you’ll simply have your student:

  1. Log in to Bookshare (using his/her student login)
  2. Select the “Upgrade to an Individual Membership” link from the left menu on the My Bookshare page.
  3. Select the link to “sign up” and complete the online form (parent or guardian must complete the form if the student is under 18).

Once this process is completed, the student will be able to search for and access books of their choice. Please be aware that the student will now have full control over his or her username and password.

You may also access these directions in this video tutorial on “upgrading” a student’s institutional account to a full individual membership.

Copyright Law Exceptions for Blind/Low Vision Individuals, Including Students

History of copyright protections

Copyright laws are a backbone of our nation. We borrowed them from England, where the oldest copyright is now more than 500 years old. Originally, copyright laws protected the publishers, not the authors, of written text. Copyright laws in the United states focus more on authors than on publishers; the United State Constitution empowers the U.S. Congress “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” U.S. Constitution Article I, Section 8, Clause 8.

Current U.S. copyright law: exceptions for individuals with print disabilities

In the U.S., copyright protections may be granted by Congress, but they may also be narrowed by Congress. With respect to individuals with print disabilities, Congress has passed several laws narrowing copyright protections for copyrighted materials distributed in the United States[1] or exported to[2] or imported from[3] countries party to the Marrakesh Treaty.[4]

Requirement for publishers to provide sources files for copyrighted print materials for U.S. K-12 students with print disabilities

For U.S. students with print disabilities in elementary and secondary school, Congress has done more than simply allow the reproduction of copyrighted print materials.[5] On December 3, 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 became law. This legislation placed an affirmative duty upon states to, by December 3, 2006 (two years later),[6] either participate in NIMAC (National Instructional Materials Access Center) or develop its own system to “provide instructional materials to blind persons or other persons with print disabilities in a timely manner.”[7] This legislation actually requires states to include in every contract for the purchase of print materials a requirement that the publisher provide files needed to make these materials accessible for students with print disabilities.

Obtaining accessible curricular materials for K-12 students with print disabilities in the U.S.

Many times, schools, individual educators, or parents will approach the publisher of print curricular materials asking for these accessible files. Many times, that publisher will claim that it cannot produce “source files” needed to efficiently produce accessible curricular materials for students with print disabilities. It can be helpful to share with that publisher the U.S. copyright law that specifically states, “it is not an infringement of copyright for a publisher of print instructional materials for use in elementary or secondary schools to create and distribute to the National Instructional Materials Access Center copies of the electronic files.”[8] Thus, any publisher’s claim that it cannot provide these materials due to copyright restrictions is wholly without merit.

Nevertheless, it is important to understand that publishers are not required to provide these source files to individual students, parents, teachers, or even school districts. Instead, publishers must provide these files to state departments of education, so school districts should communicate with their state departments of education to obtain NIMAC files for eligible students.

Next steps

All U.S.[9] students with print disabilities should have full access to curricular materials from publishers through NIMAC.[10] Educators seeking access to source files (from which accessible materials may be made efficiently) should contact the NIMAC coordinator for their state. Parents or students wanting this access should ask an administrator at the school to contact your state’s NIMAC coordinator to obtain the file as quickly as possible.

Accessible materials are not limited to NIMAC files

Please note that U.S. students with print disabilities are entitled to accessible curricular materials regardless of whether those materials are available through NIMAC. In fact, the majority of needed curricular materials are likely created by teachers, and none of those are available through NIMAC. Thus, while NIMAC is a great source for publisher-produced curricular materials (like textbooks), U.S. students have the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), which includes the provision of ALL curricular materials be provided a format that provides the student “an equal opportunity to participate in, and enjoy the benefits of”[11] use of those curricular materials.


[1] 17 U.S.C. section 121.

[2] 17 U.S.C. section 121A(a).

[3] 17 U.S.C. section 121A(b).

[4] Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities concluded at Marrakesh, Morocco, on June 28, 2013. 17 U.S.C. section 121A(f)(2).

[5] “The term ‘print instructional materials’ means printed textbooks and related printed core materials that are written and published primarily for use in elementary school and secondary school instruction and are required by a State educational agency or local educational agency for use by students in the classroom.” 20 U.S.C. section 1474(e)(3)(C).

[6] 20 U.S.C. section 1412(a)(23)(C)

[7] 20 U.S.C. section 1412(a)(23)(B)

[8] 17 U.S.C. section 121(c).

[9] All fifty U.S. states as well as the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S Virgin Islands participate in NIMAC. Additionally, the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) participates has a NIMAC coordinator.

[10] National Instructional Materials Access Center

[11] 28 C.F.R. section 35.160(b)(1).

Best Practices in Distance Instruction

Change can be difficult and scary. Unwanted change stirs up even more emotions. Add in a public health emergency and statewide stay-at-home orders, and many talented professionals will struggle with the planning and implementation of new ways to perform familiar tasks.

For the most part, distance instruction need not be a great departure from in-person instruction. The methods we use to impart information to students and to elicit evidence of learning from them will change to some extent. Nevertheless, tools that have brought success inside the school building, like creative instructional planning, proactive distribution of accessible educational materials, and thoughtful and regular use of formative assessments, will continue to serve our students in the distance learning environment.

First, Determine the “Why?”

When faced with the new challenge to deliver meaningful instruction via distance learning, it is tempting to view this task in terms of the in-person methods with which we are familiar. We analyze our former teaching methods using the questions “Who?” “What?” “When?” “Where?” and “How?”. Many times, this type of inquiry can be overwhelming, and it can cause feelings of hopelessness. After all, there are some tasks we educators do that cannot be replicated via distance learning.

Instead, the first question we should ask ourselves when planning to transition to a new learning platform, like distance learning, is “Why?” Why do we want to teach this lesson; what do we want our students to learn? We must dig down deep to determine the actual purpose of each of our lessons. What are we expecting students to learn from the assignment? When determining our curriculum for emergency distance instruction for the last two months of a school year, we must prioritize those “Why?”s to determine what we must teach via distance instruction so that we may ensure that our students are prepared for the next school year.

Answer Other Questions in Terms of the “Why?”

Once we have determined the “Why?” and have selected the very most important “Why?”s  our students need, we can begin to contemplate the other questions we face.

“Who?”

The “Who?” will certainly be our students. However, our students will achieve mastery of the “Why?” priorities at different times. Some of our students will have already mastered some, or even all, of the priorities we have identified. We may want to add some enrichment ideas for those students to maintain their skills and to move forward in the summer months so that they will be intellectually prepared and emotionally engaged with learning  for the start of the next school year. Some of our students will not have mastered the needed skills yet. We have already determined that each of our students need to master these skills in order to be ready for school in the fall, so we must provide differentiated instruction in order to help our students learn what they need to learn.

Parents, families, and caregivers are the other “Who?” in the education of a child. Inside the school building, it can be challenging to engage these stakeholders; the school building is a barrier between the teacher and the family. In the distance learning environment, families are likely omnipresent, and we should embrace this opportunity to engage them in the learning process. View the increased availability of parents as a silver lining of the COVID-19 cloud.

“What?”

Again, the prioritization list developed in the “Why?” analysis makes the task of choosing “What?” to teach easier. For language arts, we know the minimum knowledge a student must have mastered to be prepared for the next school year. We can review the students’ level of mastery before school closure, compare that to the mastery level needed for the following school year, and we are left with the minimum level of mastery our student need to achieve by the fall. We would use this same process with all academic content. So long as students receive this minimum level of instruction, they will be ready to learn when in-person schooling resumes.

Consider an elementary physical education class. While it is not “core” academic instruction, it is important for student development (otherwise, we would not dedicate our scarce educational resources to it). Some “Why?”s in physical education class include preparing students for a lifetime of physical fitness, developing transferrable skills (like hand-eye coordination), and cooperative social skill building. One activity addressing these skills is a game where students stand in a circle, and one student has a ball. Each student is assigned a number, and the student throwing the ball must call out the number of the person to whom s/he is throwing the ball. The receiving student must catch the ball and then throw it to another student, calling out that student’s number. In addition to the physical aspect of this game, it teaches listening skills (to be ready when one’s own number is called), and it forces students to pay attention to others in the group and remember their numbers). How to do this via distance? The audio would be identical, but instead of throwing the ball to another student, the student would throw the ball up and catch it—both when the student’s number is called and when calling another student’s number. We could make it more fun by throwing other things, like a favorite toy or stuffed animal instead of a ball. By focusing on the “Why?” of the activity, it is much easier to adapt the activity to a distance learning platform.

“When?”

“When?” may seem an easy question to answer. However, the realities of stay-at-home orders complicate this question significantly. Just as many parents of our students are working from home, many educators have children at home, and they must parent their home learners as well as provide instruction to their students.

In school buildings, the “When?” is immutable; schedules are wholly dependent on building hours. In the distance learning environment, we are not so constrained. We need not limit instructional availability to just a few hours each morning.

Distance learning provides opportunities to tailor instructional delivery to the needs of students, their families, and teachers. For example, the “flipped classroom” provides significant flexibility. Teachers will prepare instructional media (ensuring that all students have access to the medium). Types of instructional media include YouTube videos, audio-only podcasts, recorded telephone messages, etc., and teachers can prepare these anytime during the week. Not only will students and families be able to access this instruction at any time, they will be able to repeat and review it. Live instruction would then be an opportunity for students to discuss the assignment and to engage in much-needed social interaction with their peers and their teacher. By focusing on interaction in the live lesson, teachers are better able to assess student knowledge and further differentiate instruction as needed.

“Where?”

In general, the “Where?” of distance instruction will be at the student’s home. As noted above, the “Where?” may be in front of a computer or tablet screen, on the telephone, or listening to instruction on a local radio station. Of course, those devices need not be confined to one location in the student’s home. Just as we have “comfy” bean bags in the classroom, and just as we sometimes take learning outside to a patch of grass behind the school building, our students can take their devices anywhere safe to engage in the learning process.

“How?”

In the physical classroom, professional educators provide differentiated instruction every day, but how can it be done in the world of distance learning? As noted above, distance learning affords us different opportunities to interact with our students and their families. We no longer must commute to work, we do not spend time changing classes, etc., so we have additional time available to call families and provide the extra assistance some of our students need. We can even set up “tutoring” sessions so that several students needing more intensive instruction and practice may do so with the teacher outside of “official” class time.

For most schools, the greatest obstacle to distance learning is ensuring that all students have access to it. Some schools will not be able to provide online learning experiences, but they can provide telephone instruction in combination with hard copy paper instructional materials. Again, by focusing on the “Why?” of the instruction, we can embrace the “open doors” provided by distance instruction to determine the “How?”

What About Students with Disabilities?

Students with disabilities are, first and foremost, students. The same “Why?” inquiry needs to be made for them—in terms of academic content, need for social interaction, and for any services, accommodations, modifications, and assistive technology they need to access a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

Even when schools were open, IEP teams had the duty to provide school-purchased assistive technology for use at home when needed for the student to achieve FAPE.[1] School closures do not change this requirement; in fact, it is likely that more assistive technology will be needed when all instruction occurs in the home.

Now, as always, cost cannot be a factor in determining what a student with one or more disabilities needs to assess FAPE and to become prepared for post-secondary education, post-secondary employment, and independent living. In March, Congress appropriate more than $13.2 billion dollars to schools for COVID-19 expenses—almost doubling the entire Fiscal Year 2020 federal appropriation for special education.

With regard to services, use the “Why?” approach. What does the student need to be prepared for the upcoming school year (both academic and needs)? For years, therapy services (physical, occupational, speech) have been provided via distance, and even “hands-on” services like Braille and cane travel instruction can be provided using distance technology.

Bottom Line

Approach challenges wearing the hat of an educator. Put aside the administrative details until after making the determination of the minimum education required. When considering the administrative details, think outside the four walls of the classroom. Embrace the opportunities distance instruction provides, and know that sound instructional practices transcend physical location and method of delivery.


[1] 34 C.F.R. section 300.105(b).

Documentaries and Documentary Series Now Available for Free on Netflix’s U.S. YouTube Channel

Netflix has offered free access to high-quality documentaries to teachers for years. Now that schools are closed, Netflix has opened access to all.

Most of these videos have educational resources prepared for them, from short educational guides to full website. Links to these educational resources are embedded in the bracketed text following the title.

Regarding accessibility, at least some of these videos have closed captioning. Unfortunately, I was not able to access audio description within YouTube, and my search for how to do so led me to articles claiming that YouTube simply does not support audio description, even when the original video has it. If anyone does figure out how to make audio description work on posted YouTube videos, please let me know ASAP.

These videos are also available through a paid Netflix subscription. All of the documentaries except “Period. End of Sentence.” have English audio description available; “Period. End of Sentence.” Offers audio description, but only in the Hindi language. Each of the series has audio described episodes (I didn’t check every episode, but I’m guessing the if one is audio-described, they all are.)

You may access all of these free documentaries at: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLvahqwMqN4M0GRkZY8WkLZMb6Z-W7qbLA

Here is a list of videos available:

Review of Guidance Issued by the U.S. Department of Education Regarding Students with Disabilities

See related blog: USDOE Causes Confusion as It Seeks to Spur Into Action “Frightened” School District Officials

See related blog: FAPE for Blind/Low Vision Students During School Closures

Background

Since the COVID-19 pandemic gripped our nation, schools have sought guidance regarding education services to students with disabilities during school closures. The U.S. Department of Education has provided several documents and a webinar to guide schools on these matters. Below, please find a summary of the information provided to date.

When must schools provide education to students with disabilities?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, if the school is providing ANY “educational opportunities” to students in regular education, the school MUST provide “equal access” to those educational opportunities and must provide FAPE (free appropriate public education) to students with disabilities.

  • Note: There is disagreement regarding USDOE’s position that schools only have duties to students with disabilities when they provide educational opportunities to non-disabled students. I will not delve into this matter in this document.

What IEP services, accommodations, and modifications (SAMs) must the school provide?

Schools must provide all IEP services, including accommodations and modifications (SAMs), unless they it cannot do so. Schools should work with parents to find ways to deliver IEP SAMs, beginning with methods used before school closure and including methods such as drop off of materials, distance technology, assistive technology at home, etc. These can be incorporated into the current IEP as an amendment for which no formal meeting is held.

If the school and parent cannot agree, the IEP team should meet (via distance technology) to discuss providing IEP SAMs during school closure. Schools failing to provide required IEP SAMs may face liability for compensatory services once school resumes as well as extended school year (ESY) services if social distancing ends before schools reopen.

IEP and Re-evaluation Meetings

These meetings need not be in person, and there are no provisions for timeline extensions due to school closures. These matters will likely be very case-specific, but schools that fail to hold timely IEP meetings during the COVID-19 Pandemic may find themselves out of compliance when schools, enforcement agencies, and courts reopen.

Assessments and Evaluations

Some evaluations must involve “face-to-face assessment or observation” and that delaying these evaluations until schools reopen is valid. However, U.S. Department of Education explicitly directs schools, “Evaluations and re-evaluations that do not require face-to-face assessments or observations may take place while schools are closed, so long as a student’s parent or legal guardian consents.” This guidance is crystal clear.

Examples of assessments that need to be completed in person usually involve assessments of students around other students or in classroom settings (taking into account lighting, noise, etc.). However, reading assessments, technology assessments, mobility assessments, etc. may easily be performed using distance technology tools.

Communication and Collaboration are the Keys to Success

I completely agree with the USDOE’s promotion of collaboration between school officials and families. Undoubtedly, compromises must be made. However, students with disabilities cannot be abandoned by their schools. All parties must focus on what is important: providing FAPE by ensuring meaningful and accessible educational opportunities and individualized tools and instruction for the purpose of preparing students with disabilities for post-secondary education, post-secondary employment, and independent living.

Over the past few weeks, the experiences parents have shared tell the true story:

  • School districts that have been making good faith efforts to educate blind/low vision students before the emergency are proactively finding ways to provide accessible and meaningful educational activities for their blind/low vision students.
  • School districts that were not providing good services before the emergency tend to be the ones that are providing little or no accessible or meaningful educational opportunities for blind/low vision students—often while providing these opportunities to non-disabled students.

Next Steps for Families

I encourage families to take heart. Your children’s rights have not been altered by this emergency. Talk with your school officials. Share with them strategies that will work for your child. Provide them ideas and resources for bringing those ideas to reality.

If these efforts do not work, bide your time. Document everything you ask from and offer to your school district officials. Seek out other resources (including BEAR) for support and enrichment for your child and you. We are here for you, and we will not leave you or your child behind.

FAPE for Blind/Low Vision Students During School Closures

What kinds of blind/low vision student services CAN be provided via distance technology?

Many, many services can be provided this way. Distance instruction in each of the following has been done successfully during the COVID-19 emergency and for many years before the emergency began:

  • Academic core content
    • Math
    • Language Arts (reading, writing, spelling)
    • Social Studies
    • Science
    • Foreign Language
    • Music
  • Regular education enrichment content
    • Art
    • Physical Education
    • Music
  • Braille instruction
  • Accessible assistive technology instruction
  • Cane travel and orientation and mobility instruction
  • Related services:
    • Physical therapy
    • Occupational therapy
    • Speech therapy
    • Behavioral therapy
    • Counseling

Just because we have traditionally taught these subject in person doesn’t mean that we must always do so.

When I taught students, I did not touch them a lot. I gave hugs when requested, and I gave a lot of high-fives. However, for most instruction, body-to-body contact was not necessary. Instead, I engaged in a great deal of verbal description and allowed my students to actively participate in their own learning by encouraging them to explore their environments and educational materials as independently as possible.

There were instances where body-to-body contact was necessary. These involved mainly physical modeling for blind/low vision students and physical support for students with orthopedic disabilities. In a distance setting, I cannot provide those physical supports, but there are usually adults available who can. In school settings, I showed paraprofessionals and classroom teachers how to assist students using hand-under-hand and similar instructional strategies to help students understand new concepts and to provide students physical support to access materials. In the home, parents or other caregivers can receive the same kind of training.

Will changes be necessary? Probably. Many parents are working from home and do not have the flexibility to shift their work hours to fit the school schedule. In these cases, schools should allow teachers to modify their schedules to accommodate parental time restrictions. Given that no one is tied to a school building anymore, there are no good reasons to be tied to certain hours. So long as we work together and focus on our students, we can all be successful, and our students can be well-served.

What changes are really necessitated by distance technology for blind/low vision students?

For blind/low vision students, most, if not all, special education services, accommodations, and modifications (SAMs) should remain in place during school closures.

  • Textbooks should have been in place for months, and they should remain available. I’ve not heard of any school districts getting new textbooks due to the closure (and, if they did, they would presumably get accessible versions as well).
  • Worksheets and other instructional materials should have been made accessible throughout the school year. The production of accessible instructional materials should not be interrupted due to school closures, and home delivery of hard copy materials can be made.
  • Accessible assistive technology should have long been in place—in the school and in the home. For schools that have been meeting the needs of students with blindness/low vision before school closure, the transition to online education should be very easy.

In some cases, schools will not have had these SAMs in place before school closure. This is unfortunate, but it is not an excuse for schools continuing to withhold FAPE and accessible instructional materials from students with blindness/low vision. These schools must step up and remediate their past failures; they must not use school closures as an excuse to continue their pre-closure mistakes. Instead of avoiding these responsibilities, I encourage school officials to reach out for help.

USDOE Causes Confusion as It Seeks to Spur Into Action “Frightened” School District Officials

Guidance Issued to Encourage Schools to Provide Educational Opportunities to Students

On March 21, 2020, the United States Department of Education (USDOE) issued guidance directly addressing concerns schools have put forth regarding special education services. At the time, some schools were claiming that they could not provide ANY educational services to any students because they were unable to meet all the needs of all students with disabilities.

This attempt to scapegoat students with disabilities is as meritless as it is morally reprehensible. For more than three decades, school districts have known of their responsibilities to provide free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities. Many school districts have stepped up and met their legal responsibilities to all of their students, and our society has benefited from having young people enter adulthood prepared for post-secondary education, post-secondary employment, and independent living. Some school districts, however, have not met their legal responsibilities for years, and many of these attempt to focus on minimal legal compliance rather than on their stated mission: education.

Earlier Guidance Makes Schools’ Obligations Clear

In guidance published in September 2017, September 2018, and March 12, 2020, the USDOE noted: “If an LEA continues to provide educational opportunities to the general student population during a school closure, the school must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities, including the provision of FAPE. (34 CFR §§ 104.4, 104.33 (Section 504) and 28 CFR § 35.130 (Title II of the ADA)). SEAs, LEAs, and schools must ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, each student with a disability can be provided the special education and related services identified in the student’s IEP developed under IDEA, or a plan developed under Section 504. (34 CFR §§ 300.101 and 300.201 (IDEA), and 34 CFR § 104.33 (Section 504)).” Yes, this same guidance has been available to school administrators for more than two and one-half years.

The USDOE’s March 16, 2020, encourages school districts to utilize accessible technology to serve students with disabilities, “Accessible technology may afford students, including students with disabilities, an opportunity to have access to high-quality educational instruction during an extended school closure, especially when continuing education must be provided through distance learning.” The USDOE guidance is clear: Educators are expected to provide education and educational opportunities to all students.

With the USDOE’s March 17, 2020 press release and webinar, USDOE Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth L. Marcus gets straight to the point. “’OCR’s accessibility webinar is intended to remind school leaders at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels of their legal obligations to ensure that all students, including students with disabilities, can access online and virtual learning programs,’ said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth L. Marcus. ‘Students with disabilities must have access to educational technology utilized by schools, and OCR will continue to work to ensure that no student is excluded from utilizing these important tools.’”

USDOE Tries to Coax School Officials Into Doing Their Jobs

Despite the crystal-clear guidance USDOE had provided to school district officials for thirty months, some school officials still claimed they could not provide any education to any students because, despite two and one-half years of guidance, they were not prepared to provide FAPE or IEP services during a school closure and do not believe that they can do so in the coming weeks and months. The USDOE then issued even more guidance on March 21, 2020. The tone of this new guidance is concerning—it tends to focus on methods school officials may use to avoid their legal responsibilities.

While this guidance reminds school officials that many special education services CAN be offered via distance education, it also states that some services, including “hands-on physical therapy, occupational therapy, or tactile sign language educational services” cannot be provide via distance education. This is troublesome “guidance,” because many physical and occupational therapists have used distance technology to provides services for years—especially to adults in remote locations. Certainly, many PT and OT services for children can be delivered this way.

One example in the new USDOE guidance is troubling. The USDOE sets forth an example wherein it would be permissible for a teacher to provide educational materials to sighted students and offer only audio access to a blind student. However, a closer look at the language used in the guidance makes it clear that this is a narrow example that cannot be applied to all blind/low vision students.

Application of USDOE Blind Student Example Will be Extremely Limited

The “blind student” example in the new USDOE guidance reads as follows: “For example, if a teacher who has a blind student in her class is working from home and cannot distribute a document accessible to that student, she can distribute to the rest of the class an inaccessible document and, if appropriate for the student, read the document over the phone to the blind student or provide the blind student with an audio recording of a reading of the document aloud.”

Please note important conditions contained in this example.

  1. The teacher would need to be unable to “distribute a document accessible to” the blind student. This is actually a high barrier. Why is the teacher unable to do so?
    • In order to prove that the teacher is unable to provide accessible material, the school must answer several important questions:
      • What was the school doing before the emergency that allowed the student access to the material?
      • What about the emergency situation precludes the school from doing what worked before?
    • The school must prove that it is not creating the problem:
      • Is the teacher unable to provide the accessible material because the school is not permitting the teacher to access the specialist who can provide the material in accessible form?
      • If so, what is the reason for the school’s refusal?
      • Money? Bad reason, and it won’t pass the smell test—even in an emergency situation.
    • The school must also show why preventative measures had not already been in place:
      • Is it because the school refuses to allow the student to use school-owned equipment that would make the material accessible?
      • If yes, why?
      • Will the school authorize the purchase of such equipment to be shipped directly to the student’s home?
      • If no, why not?
    • Bottom line: The refusal of school officials to make basic attempts to provide accessible content is not excusable.
  2. The teacher may read the materials aloud or provide the student an audio recording ONLY “if appropriate for the student.”
    • If the student needs to interact with the text (like all the non-disabled students get to do), audio would likely NOT be appropriate for the student.
    • Come to think of it, if audio recordings are so fabulous, why not ditch the text completely and provide ONLY an audio recording for all students?
    • Bottom line: If non-disabled students need text to access the assignment, schools need to prove that blind students do not.
  3. This portion of USDOE guidance evidences a lack of understanding about accessible education options for blind students, especially with regard to distance learning.
    • The example of read-alouds is really quite behind the times given present technology.
    • Refreshable Braille displays can provide blind students the same access to text (in Braille) that non-disabled students receive (in print).
    • Accessible text-to-speech and screen reader programs provide blind students using audio far more control of the content by allowing them to vary speed and volume and by allowing them to move about the document independently and at any time they choose—just as non-disabled students can do with print.
    • Bottom line: It is unfortunate that the USDOE chose the example they did, but it certainly does not mean that schools can shrug off their responsibilities under federal law to every blind student by simply providing an audio version of materials provided to non-disabled students in text.

The USDOE has NOT Changed Requirements of Federal Law

Federal law (statutory, regulatory, and judicial case law) provides the best guidance in this and any other situation. FAPE must be provided. For students with IEPs, the school must follow the requirements of the IEP, including special education services, accommodations, modifications, and any assistive technology needed to access FAPE. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act require schools to provide deaf/hard of hearing students, blind/low vision students, and students with disabilities in the area of speech communication methods that are as effective as those used by non-disabled students.

These are no suggestions; they are laws. These laws set forth federally-protected educational and civil rights for students with disabilities. Schools have no right to strip students with disabilities of these rights and neither does the U.S. Department of Education.

Sign Up for Bookshare

Bookshare is a service that provides accessible books to qualifying individuals (with one or more of the following conditions: Visual impairment, including blindness, Learning disability that affects reading, Other physical disability). In order to get Bookshare, an individual must be certified as having a qualifying disability.

Bookshare is free for K-12, post-secondary, and a rehabilitation program students in the U.S. Other qualifying individuals must pay a $50 yearly fee (unless they have another organization providing free Bookshare access).

If your child qualifies for a Bookshare account but does not have one, there is no reason to wait any longer. Below, you will find all the information you need to complete an online application for a free Bookshare account for your qualifying child. You will need a Competent Authority in order to get a free Bookshare account (for blind/low vision individuals Bookshare states that “Competent authorities include school and district personnel such as teachers of the visually impaired or special education teachers; medical professionals such as ophthalmologists, optometrists, family doctors; other authorities such as AT specialists, rehabilitation counselors, etc.”).

  1. Go to Bookshare and begin the application process. You will find an outline of all the questions that will be asked in this blog post: “How to Sign Up for a Bookshare Account Online
  2. Download “Individual_Proof_of_Disability.”
  3. Complete “Step 1” of the Individual_Proof_of_Disability (at the top of page two).
  4. Save “Individual_Proof_of_Disability” as a Word document.
  5. Ask a “Competent Authority” to complete the “Individual_Proof_of_Disability” as a PDF and return it to you.
  6. You may then upload that document to Bookshare.