Op-ed: Hatch leads on access for disabled, but other Utahns fall short

By Sachin Pavathran

Published: April 5, 2014 01:01AM
Updated: April 5, 2014 01:01AM
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Twenty-four years after he helped author the Americans with Disabilities Act, Sen. Orrin Hatch is still leading the charge as a champion for people with disabilities. In February he joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to introduce a bill that improves access to instructional materials for students with disabilities.

As a blind Utahn pursuing a doctoral degree, I am proud that Hatch continues to be a leader for equal access.

Hatch is also a conservative touchstone. After 40 years, he has become the most senior Republican in the Senate. Rarely do we see polar opposites partner on a bill, but the Technology, Education and Accessibility in College and Higher Education (TEACH) Act has bipartisan appeal. Similarly, the House version is sponsored by a senior Republican.

So why are Congressmen Rob Bishop, Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart not supporting the bill?

The majority of university websites, digital books, PDFs, learning management systems, lab software and online research journals are inaccessible to blind students, despite the fact that colleges and universities are required to provide equal access for students with disabilities and these products can easily be made accessible. Technology holds the promise of equal access, but instead it creates more barriers than the print world ever did.

Fortunately, we do not need to make a second requirement that schools use accessible technology, or mandate accessibility by technology companies, or get harsher about enforcement. We simply need to give direction to schools about what to ask for so the market will deliver it.

The TEACH Act creates voluntary accessibility guidelines and then offers a safe harbor from litigation for any school that uses technology that conforms to those guidelines. This is basic supply and demand: The more schools that conform to the guidelines, the more accessible products will emerge in the market.

Bishop, Chaffetz and Stewart have repeatedly asserted their commitment to keeping the federal government out of education issues. Consistent with that belief, these guidelines are voluntary. This means states can adopt the guidelines, develop their own guidelines, or ignore the guidelines. Naturally, a tool for a national market should come from a national entity.

Bishop, Chaffetz and Stewart believe in capitalism, and consistent with that belief, the TEACH Act empowers the free market. It does not create any technology mandates or limiting regulations; rather, the guidelines will stimulate the creation of a viable digital marketplace that benefits everyone. In fact, the bill is endorsed by the Association of American Publishers, the lead trade association of the U.S. publishing industry and one of the largest stakeholders.

Bishop, Chaffetz and Stewart say that they are committed to doing what’s best for students in Utah, so I told them my story. I explained how some university web pages are incompatible with my screen access software, so I cannot register for classes independently or on time. Sometimes I cannot start assigned readings until weeks into class. When conducting research, I have a friend read each online journal article aloud, verbatim, when I’d rather quickly scan the excerpts myself.

My last assignment was converted into a group project solely so I could analyze the data from statistical software. If I, and thousands of students in a similar situation are going to succeed, this needs to change.

Bishop, Chaffetz and Stewart subscribe to the philosophy that wasteful spending is destructive. Allowing blind students to drop out of college does not create successful, contributing members of society; it undermines programs that support people with disabilities and increases the number of people dependent on entitlements.

Allowing schools to face lawsuit after lawsuit while the benefits of technology remain untapped is much more wasteful than the scintilla of money needed to create guidelines to stimulate systemic change. The congressmen are supporting a do-nothing policy, which is the costliest of them all.

Are things so bad on Capitol Hill that our representatives cannot recognize a good bill when they see one? I urge Bishop, Chaffetz and Stewart to do what is best for students with disabilities in a way that is consistent with their stated beliefs by cosponsoring the TEACH Act. Otherwise, Utahns will need to re-evaluate the sincerity of their commitment.

Sachin Pavithran is legislative director of the National Federation of the Blind of Utah and is a doctoral candidate at Utah State University.