Accessible Instructional Materials Bill Introduced with Higher Ed., Disability, Publishing, and Tech Groups’ Support

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(September 27, 2016 – Jarret Cummings) U.S. Representatives Phil Roe (R-TN) and Joe Courtney (D-CT) have introduced the Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education (AIM-HE) Act into Congress. As discussed previously, the bill reflects shared proposals and recommendations developed via a two-year collaboration between the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the Association of American Publishers (AAP), the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), the American Council on Education (ACE), EDUCAUSE, and other leading higher education associations. All of these organizations, as well as groups such as the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, have endorsed the AIM-HE Act, which replaces an earlier proposal suggested by NFB and AAP, known as the TEACH Act, with a bill supported by a broad cross-section of stakeholder communities.

Key elements of AIM-HE summarized below include:

  • The Act’s Primary Goal: Producing Voluntary Guidelines
  • How It Will Work
  • Annotated List of General IT Accessibility Standards
  • Legal Safe Harbors
  • What’s Next

The Act’s Primary Goal: Producing Voluntary Guidelines

The bill’s core provisions would establish a stakeholder commission with balanced representation from the disability, higher education, and content/technology provider communities to develop voluntary guidelines for accessible postsecondary electronic instructional materials and related technologies. The commission would be supported in this task by an equally representative panel of accessibility and technology experts. The commission would have roughly two years to complete its work, with approval of seventy-five percent (75%) of commission members necessary to release it.

How It Will Work

In formulating the guidelines, the commission would review existing national and international accessibility standards relevant to postsecondary digital learning resources and technologies that facilitate their delivery; look for any gaps in relation to pedagogical and accessibility issues unique to higher education; and seek to define criteria and recommendations that would help content and technology providers as well as higher education institutions bridge those gaps. Importantly, the commission would also seek to identify areas of accessibility and/or postsecondary electronic instructional materials and technologies “for which the commission cannot produce guidelines or which cannot be addressed by existing accessibility standards due to — (i) inherent limitations of commercial technologies; or (ii) the challenges posed by a specific category of disability...”

Annotated List of General IT Accessibility Standards

In addition to the voluntary guidelines, the commission would capitalize on its review of general national and international accessibility standards to compile a list of such standards with notes to explain their relevance and potential applicability in higher education settings. Colleges, universities, and content/technology providers would be able to use this resource on a voluntary basis to inform their efforts at continuous improvement in IT accessibility more broadly.

Legal Safe Harbors

If passed, the AIM-HE Act would provide colleges and universities with two safe harbors from litigation related to their use of digital learning resources and related technologies. The “full safe harbor” stipulates that higher education institutions using resources and technologies that conform to the voluntary guidelines would be deemed compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act as they relate to such resources and technologies. The second provides more limited protection – if an institution appropriately documents its use of the guidelines in considering a digital learning resource or related technology, but ultimately decides it must deploy a resource or technology that doesn’t conform to the guidelines, then the institution would see its financial liability under an adverse ADA or Section 504 ruling related to the resource or technology limited to the costs of mitigating its mistake and the plaintiff’s reasonable legal fees.

What’s Next

The House Education and the Workforce Committee will now consider the bill, although it’s unclear in this election-shortened legislative season whether the committee will have enough time to move the bill to a vote of the full House in 2016. Introduction of the AIM-HE Act this year, though, makes its introduction in the next Congress, which will start in January 2017, much easier, and that would align further consideration of the bill with reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), the nation’s primary law addressing postsecondary education issues (e.g., student financial aid).

Meanwhile, the organizations that informed AIM-HE’s development, including EDUCAUSE, will begin pursuing potential Senate sponsors for the bill. Having the bill introduced in both chambers of Congress will increase its chances of passage both this year and next year, as well as further cement its consideration as part of HEA reauthorization next year if AIM-HE has to be reintroduced in 2017. (Incorporating the bill into the larger, more established HEA, if that’s accomplished, would add to its potential of becoming law.)

EDUCAUSE will continue to update members about the bill’s progress and prospects as it moves through the legislative process. The association is proud of its collaboration with ACE, NFB, AAP, SIIA, and other groups that facilitated development and introduction of the AIM-HE Act. We look forward to continuing that collaboration and building on the model it presents for joint efforts between the higher education, disability, and content/technology provider communities.

View a PDF of the bill.

Jarret Cummings is director of policy and government relations at EDUCAUSE.