Declaration Commentary by Clayton Lewis

Declaration Commentary

by Clayton Lewis, PhD

Clayton Lewis 
Clayton Lewis

In a couple of meetings recently I've asked the audience, “When did children with disabilities gain the right to free public education?” Many people are shocked by the question. “They must always have had that right,” or “It must have been a very long time ago,” are common responses. It does indeed seem shocking that there was a time when children with disabilities were routinely turned away from schools, and it seems shocking that the courts only recognized their right in Pennsylvania in 1971[1] and it was not until 1975 that the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act., was enacted, codifying that right nationally.

Today, unfortunately, we are not shocked when access to technology and information is not protected for people with cognitive disabilities as it is for other people. Just as schools in the past made the presumption that they could not serve children with disabilities, we too often accept the apparent limitations on what we can do to expand cognitive access.

The limitations on what we can do are real. But there are limitations on all kinds of accessibility. When we recognize any right to access, we aren't asserting that there are no limitations. Rather, we are committing ourselves to push back the limitations as best we can.

Our commitment to the right of access to technology and information for people with cognitive disabilities means that we will do what we can, today, to expand cognitive access, and that we will expect others to do the same. For example, we will support spoken presentation of text, without requiring a complex software tool. We will make the content we create as easy to understand as the underlying ideas permit, without introducing needless obstacles to comprehension in the way we write.

We will also vigorously pursue research and innovation that will allow us to do more, in the future. We can create tools that allow people to tailor the way content is presented to them, that can produce a short, readable summary of complex content, that can assist users in carrying out a complex interaction, such as applying for services, and much more.

We can look forward to a time, perhaps less than 40 years from now, when people will ask, “You mean, there was a time when people didn't do these things?”


[1] In 1971, Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania became the first right-to-education suit in the country. The case settled quickly in a consent decree which laid the foundation for the establishment of the right to a free and public education for all children with disabilities.

Clayton Lewis, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Colorado in Boulder, CO.

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