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Welcome to the September issue of the CommonLook Accessibility Newsletter!

With September comes the official end of summer and students across the country are heading back to class, so this month’s newsletter is chock full of Back-to-School goodness as we focus on accessibility in education.

When it comes to accessibility and education, it’s important to understand that there is no single set of standards or laws that applies.  This month we explore the different regulations and each one’s prominence in our Back-to-School Primer on Accessibility and Education.

We continue the trend as we learn more about the prototypical college accessibility program at Virginia’s largest research university, George Mason University.

And as a non-Edu-related bonus, we include a crucial tip for federal agencies seeking to allocate end-of-year funds that will yield accessibility dividends in the future.

As always, we welcome your suggestions for upcoming topics and would like to know what you think of NetCentric’s CommonLook Accessibility Newsletter.

Use this link to share your comments or story ideas with the CommonLook Accessibility Newsletter staff.


We Hope You Enjoy!

NetCentric Technologies

A Back To School Primer On Education And Accessibility



It’s a new academic year and students of all ages and all levels of education are headed back to school. With the return of students to the classroom comes the need to accommodate students with disabilities so they can participate fully in the educational experience.  The nature of these accommodations and the conditions under which they are provided is determined by the status of the educational institution (elementary, public, private, and higher education).

In the United States, this means understanding the distinctions and requirements between various laws involving accessibility, education, and civil rights. The education of students with disabilities is a critical priority at all levels, as success in education is a predictor of success in adult life. For students with disabilities, a good education can be the difference between a life of dependence and non-productivity and a life of independence and productivity. As a result, complex sets of laws have evolved around disability and education to provide the most appropriate accommodations to students with disabilities based upon their needs and where they find themselves in their academic careers.

Higher Education

In the arena of Higher Education, there is a common misconception that an institution’s accessibility requirements are typically satisfied through the services of an office dedicated to providing accommodations to students with disabilities.

These offices, however, are only one manifestation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 requires that institutions of higher education that receive Federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education provide students with disabilities the same opportunity to engage in educational experiences as non-disabled students.  It involves students who voluntarily disclose (self-identify) that they have a disability provide documentation of that disability and meet the eligibility requirements that entitle them to receive approved accommodations (referred to as appropriate academic adjustments in Section 504), such as modifications of programs or auxiliary aids, in order to participate in programs and activities.

It’s Section 504 that, among other provisions, relaxes copyright restrictions allowing educational institutions to create derivative products transforming hardcopy textbooks to accessible electronic versions or into Braille. But accessibility does not allow for copyright violations; distribution of these so-called derivative products is limited to the self-identified student who qualifies for the accommodation.

Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act applies to colleges and universities receiving federal financial assistance. The mandates of the ADA apply to all institutions of higher education, regardless of the receipt of federal funds.

The ADA protects fundamental rights and extends equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities to the areas of public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications. Colleges and universities are public accommodations and as such need to provide accessible access to faculty, staff, students, prospective students, parents and guardians, and the general public. This extends to such activities as applying for admissions or learning about the institution from its website.

Public institutions also fall under the provisions of Title II of the ADA. Title II prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all services, programs, and activities provided to the public by State and local governments, except public transportation services. Unlike section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which only covers programs receiving Federal financial assistance, title II extends to all the activities of State and local governments, whether or not they receive Federal funds. Public transportation services operated by State and local governments are covered by regulations of the Department of Transportation.

It is Title II that makes it necessary for the university to provide an accessible learning management system, accessible access to university services, and programs to all, whether or not they self-identify.

Primary Education

Section 504 also applies to public elementary education. The Section 504 regulations require a school district to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to each qualified student with a disability who is in the school district’s jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability.

In addition to Section 504, for students ages 3 to 22 there exists the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which provides special education services for school-age children. Special education is instruction specifically designed to meet the educational and developmental needs of children with disabilities, or those who are experiencing developmental delays.

IDEA provides early intervention services for preschoolers and services for school-age children in grades Kindergarten through 12.

IDEA is based on the understanding that adaptations, accommodations, and modifications need to be individualized for students, based upon their needs and their personal learning styles and interests.  It is not always obvious what adaptations, accommodations, or modifications would be beneficial for a particular student, or how changes to the curriculum, its presentation, the classroom setting, or student evaluation might be made. Thus, students seeking to obtain services available to them under IDEA must be evaluated.

For preschoolers, IDEA provides early interventions services. Early intervention is intended for infants and toddlers who have a developmental delay or disability. Eligibility is determined by evaluating the child (with parents’ consent) to see if the little one does, in fact, have a delay in development or a disability. Eligible children can receive early intervention services from birth through the third birthday (and sometimes beyond).

Once in grade school, if a child is found to be a child with a disability, as defined by IDEA, he or she is eligible for special education and related services. Within 30 calendar days after a child is determined eligible, a team of school professionals and the parents must meet to write an individualized education program (IEP) for the child.

After the IEP is written, services are provided. The child’s IEP is reviewed by the IEP team at least once a year, or more often if the parents or school ask for a review. If necessary, the IEP is revised. Parents, as team members, must be invited to participate in these meetings. Parents can make suggestions for changes, can agree or disagree with the IEP, and agree or disagree with the placement.

The child is continuously evaluated. At least every three years the child must be reevaluated. This evaluation is sometimes called a “triennial.” Its purpose is to find out if the child continues to be a child with a disability, as defined by IDEA, and what the child’s educational needs are. However, the child must be reevaluated more often, if conditions warrant, or if the child’s parent or teacher asks for a new evaluation.

In Conclusion

When it comes to accessibility and education, it’s important to understand that there is no single set of standards or laws that apply. In addition to the rights for persons with disabilities which are guaranteed by the ADA, the nature of the accommodations and services that are provided for students with disabilities is determined by both eligibility criteria and where they are in the course of their academic careers. What is clear is the education of students with disabilities is an important priority for educators, the government, and society at large.

Accessibility All Stars: George Mason University’s Winning  Assistive Technology Initiative 



George Mason University has acquired a number of accolades since its humble beginnings in a single building with an enrollment of just 17 students in 1957. In the years since, Mason, as it’s commonly known by faculty and students, has grown into the largest public research university in the state of Virginia. U.S. News and World Report has named it one of the most diverse public universities in the country, a nod to a student body of nearly 34,000, hailing from 130 countries and all 50 states. In 2006, the school made headlines as its men’s basketball team traveled to the NCAA’s Final Four, making history in the university’s athletics program.

There is another designation, though, that most people are unaware of, one the school has earned which is just as impressive as its unofficial ranking or its Cinderella Story athletic achievements: George Mason is home to one of the most successful accessibility programs in the country. While there is no trophy given for the title, those in the accessibility field know what a formidable challenge creating and maintaining a successful accessibility program can be.

The Dream Team

Korey Singleton, Manager of Mason’s Assistive Technology Initiative (ATI), and Kara Zirkle, Mason’s IT Accessibility Coordinator, are at the front lines of this ongoing challenge. If we were to draw a parallel between Mason’s accessibility program and its all-star 2006 NCAA basketball team, Singleton and Zirkle could be likened to storied Head Coach Jim Larrañaga and MVP starting guard Lamar Butler. While it’s always a team effort, it takes star players to go all the way and Singleton and Zirkle have been instrumental in ensuring Mason’s Accessibility Technology Initiative continues to shine.

Singleton works in Mason’s office of Compliance, Diversity, and Ethics (CDE), charged with addressing accessibility at Mason.  His office serves as a central clearinghouse for the university’s accessibility needs. Zirkle serves as the liaison between Singleton’s office and the university’s IT department, as well as other pertinent areas.  While accessibility and compliance of Mason’s HTML web content has long been a main point of focus, it is in more recent years that the university has fine-tuned its focus on document accessibility.  Singleton and Zirkle worked in tandem to bring this vital piece of the accessibility puzzle up to speed.

Educating the Educators

Perhaps it’s fitting that one of the great challenges Singleton and Zirkle have faced at an academic institution is educating their faculty peers on document accessibility. “As it relates to the academic side of things, when you ask them what document accessibility is, they don’t know what ‘document accessibility’ means,” says Singleton. “While there may be several things you can do to make a Word document or PowerPoint document accessible, the difficult thing is literally trying to get them to understand what that means.”

“The biggest challenge has been with most of the documents coming from the faculty and academic side,” says Zirkle. “They’re the ones that push against change the most and they also have a lot more on their plate.” Singleton notes that in this environment you need to establish priorities. “You have to pick and choose your battles with what you need, what are the priorities – labeling images, structuring tables properly – if you were asking them to do certain things.”

History Repeats Itself

In order to configure a best plan for addressing Mason’s document accessibility needs, Singleton and Zirkle looked to the past to see what had worked before. “When we really stopped hitting our heads against the wall, we realized it would be easier in some ways to take documents and mimic what we were doing with captioning,” says Singleton. “That was the path we saw.”  He’s referring to the pilot program that Mason had previously implemented to address the university’s video captioning needs – another piece of the whole accessibility puzzle.

“With captioning, we started with a small pilot program, working with one instructional designer and grad students and grew from there,” says Singleton.  “We offered the program to the entire university after 6 months. When we rolled it out to the entire university, we were still tweaking certain things, but had a lot figured out through the pilot program. We started the same way with document accessibility.”

Singleton and Zirkle already had an in with Mason’s instructional design team and understood the difficulties they had experienced in promoting document accessibility. “We started off saying, ‘Let’s find out how it would look for us to make documents accessible and open up a pilot. Let’s see how many faculty participate, streamline the process, and see what would work best.”

CommonLook – Calling in a Key Player

In order to streamline the process of making documents accessible during the pilot program, Singleton and Zirkle employed the help of NetCentric Technologies’ CommonLook Office software, used to create accessible documents from Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. While they had looked at other providers, they selected CommonLook for its all-encompassing features and capabilities and its user-friendliness, as most of the faculty had little or no knowledge of or prior experience working in document accessibility.

“The more we can make it so that we can cover the majority of stuff under one umbrella, the better,” says Zirkle. “We can create documents much faster using the software than what we can by hand. Measurably, we can do a lot of the work in half the time.”

Mason’s document accessibility pilot program began in early November of 2014 and completed in early spring of 2015. Twelve faculty members participated, roughly 90 documents were submitted, and over 1,100 pages were reviewed for accessibility during this time.  “We realized how well the software could meet our needs,” says Singleton of the CommonLook Office tool used for Word and PowerPoint. “It is very nice in the sense that it’s a wizard and it walks you through the process.  If we bring in student workers to grow the program, it’s a tool that we can easily bring people in and train them on.”

The Road Ahead

After the success of the pilot program, Singleton and Zirkle are better equipped to move to the next stage of expansion for Mason’s ATI. Their long-term goal is to add more staffing to support the work done in CDE. “We’d like to get to the point where we can totally support the Office of Education,” says Singleton. “For all of the online courses being developed, if we can get it to the point where we can be in a position to support the documents for all of those courses – we’d be in a great position.”

As accessibility advocates at any university can attest, gaining external support for the initiative is a fundamental part of a program’s success. “I love the [CommonLook] tool, I love how easy it is to use,” says Singleton. “Now we need the culture to roll out so people can take it and run with it. I’d say having gone through everything we did with the pilot, it’s given us insight to what is possible down the line. It’s also shown us where the gaps are, what we currently have in place, and what we need to be successful.”

Being successful seems to be the status quo at George Mason, whether it’s in the classroom, on the basketball court, or inside the offices of its all-star accessibility team. While the growth and expansion of the university’s accessibility initiative is a burgeoning work in progress, one thing remains certain. The program, already looked to as a prototype by universities across the nation seeking to implement their own accessibility solutions, will continue to score high marks.



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