Do postsecondary institutions have to provide assistive technology (for example, screen enlargement or voice recognition software) to students with disabilities who enroll in distance learning courses?
There has not been a court decision that can answer this question definitively, or any reason for OCR to administratively rule on it. Generally, §504 and the ADA require that a school provide reasonable accommodation to individuals with disabilities. The Department of Education regulations suggest three types of accommodations that may be made, one of which is the provision of auxiliary aids. The school is required to provide "auxiliary aids and services necessary to afford an individual with a disability an equal opportunity to participate in the school's program." Auxiliary aids and services are those that ensure "effective communication." The Title II ADA regulations list such things as qualified interpreters, Brailled materials, assistive listening devices, and videotext displays as examples but the list is not exhaustive. The services and devices listed are illustrative only and others can be considered auxiliary aids and services. (28 C.F.R. §35.104)
Whether assistive technology is an auxiliary aid in a distance learning course is debatable, particularly when a prerequisite for enrolling in a distance learning course is that all students (with or without disabilities) are required to have access to all the hardware and software necessary to participate in the course (that is, students who sign up for a distance learning course are required to have the compatible computer and Internet access). Under these conditions, a postsecondary institution is not required to provide students with the hardware or software necessary to take the distance-learning course. Therefore, a student who requires assistive technology to access the distance learning course would be responsible for whatever hardware and software is necessary to allow him/her to be ready to participate. However, even if it is not the legal obligation of the postsecondary institution to provide the assistive technology, it is the responsibility of the distance learning course provider to make sure that users with disabilities who use assistive technology have access to the web-based information.
Note: This article is an excerpt from the larger AccessIT document Web Accessibility and Individuals with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: The Legal Issues.