Declaration Commentary by Michael Wehmeyer

I suspect that the importance of the call for “equal rights of people with cognitive disabilities to technology and information access” with “deliberate speed” embodied in Declaration of the Rights of People with Cognitive Disabilities to Technology and Information Access will be underestimated by some readers, at least at first glance.  Although most Americans know that ours is an increasingly technology-driven society, it’s my sense that most people still view technology as adding convenience or making tasks simpler, and access to such technology as being important, but perhaps not critical.  In reality, however, technology access is no longer simply a convenience, it is a necessity if one is to obtain full inclusion and full citizenship.

In 1992, the reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act stated, in the Findings from Congress section, that the “goals of the Nation properly include the goal of providing individuals with disabilities with the tools necessary to (A) make informed choices and decisions and (B) achieve equality of opportunity, full inclusion and integration in society, employment, independent living, and economic and self-sufficiency for such individuals.” That language was incorporated into the preamble to almost every piece of disability legislation passed or reauthorized since.   And, guess what?  In 2014, some of the most important such “tools” involve technology.  Technology access is not an issue of convenience or simplicity, it is quite simply a matter of being fully included, appropriately educated, employed, and fully participating citizens in our society.

 

Let me turn to an example from my field, education, to illustrate the importance and urgency of this call.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act provides civil protections to ensure that all students with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education.  The Supreme Court has defined an “appropriate” education as one from which a student with a disability might reasonably be expected to benefit.  Many students with cognitive disabilities have difficulty learning to read or are not able to acquire more advanced literacy skills.  If the content in a course is delivered primarily through a print textbook, there is really no reasonable expectation that the student should be able to learn the content.  Up until the last decade, however, there was not much to be done about that.  This is no longer true.  With digital texts, students can gain access to content through text-to-speech features, the use of audio and video outputs and inputs, graphics and photographs, and tiered-levels of student response options that enable them to record (rather than type or write) responses or respond to multiple choice options, or respond in whatever way they are able to respond.  In reality, student access to, say, 7th grade science content, is no longer gated by the availability of print-only material.  And if curriculum standards for science (or math or reading or social studies or…well, you get the point) are established based upon what “all students” should know, why should it not be the case that students with disabilities could benefit from this content? As such, we are left with the question: is the student being provided an “appropriate” education (one from which he or she might reasonably benefit) in the absence of the technology that could provide such access?  This is not a matter of convenience or simplicity, it is a matter of equal rights - equal access.  Digital texts (and other forms of electronic and information technologies) are not simply conveniences; they are the difference between inclusion and exclusion; access and discrimination; employment and unemployment; high quality education and poor education; full citizenship and second-class citizenship.  The goals of our Nation “properly include the goal of providing individuals with disabilities with the tools necessary to achieve equality of opportunity, full inclusion and integration into society, employment, independent living, and economic and social self-sufficiency.”  Deliberate speed indeed.  We haven’t a moment to waste.

 

Michael Wehmeyer, Ph.D., is the Director of the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities, the Senior Scientist and Associate Director for the Beach Center on Disability, and a Teaching Professor of Special Education at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS.