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By Amy Halpert, Esq.,  and Marion Walsh, Esq., Littman Krooks LLP

As we all navigate the uncharted waters of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we stand with all parents and students and hope all clients and families remain healthy and safe. At Littman Krooks, we emphasize that our offices are open remotely and we can handle consultations via phone, Face Time or other mediums.  Our special education department is here to serve you and we welcome questions during this challenging time.

As schools in New York will be closed at least until April 1st and probably longer, online or remote learning will be our children’s only connection to school. As parents, we know this lack of structure is difficult for all, particularly for students with learning or emotional disabilities or with attention or behavioral challenges.  As parents, hunkered down in our respective voluntary and non-voluntary quarantined existence, we cannot help but feel submerged and overwhelmed by the onslaught of online resources, programs and activities. We know that you are clicking away at websites, suggestions and recommendations to hop from site to site looking for stimulation, inspiration and nourishment for children, teens and young adults at home.  When these online sources come directly from our schools however, we pause, as our children require immediate access.  This access is crucial because it is necessary to provide our children a free appropriate public education or to allow our children who are college students to access their education.

OCR Provides Accessibility Guidance for Online Learning 

Students with disabilities may have particular challenges accessing remote or online learning. Online learning is only a powerful tool for educational institutions so long as it is accessible to everyone. According to recent guidelines and a webinar for online accessibility from the Office for Civil Right (OCR) distributed by the United States Department of Education (USDOE) March 16, 2020, services, programs and activities online must be accessible to all persons, including individuals with disabilities, unless provision for equally effective alternative access in another manner occurs.

Equal Opportunity under the Law: OCR is responsible for enforcing two federal civil rights laws that address the rights of individuals with disabilities. Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to entities that receive federal financial assistance from the USDOE, including school districts and private and public colleges and universities. Title II of the American with Disabilities Act applies to public entities, and OCR shares responsibility with the United States Department of Justice in enforcing Title II with respect to most public educational institutions, as well as public libraries. Under both laws, receipt of federal financial assistance and public entities must ensure that individuals with disabilities have an equal opportunity, as compared to individuals without disabilities, to participate in their services, programs and activities.

What does Accessibility to Online Resources mean?: According to OCR, accessibility to online resources means that individuals with disabilities must have equal opportunity to obtain the same information, and engage in the same interactions and enjoy the same programs, services and activities as non-disabled peers, with substantially equivalent ease of use. When considering the accessibility of online technology, individuals with disabilities such as blindness, low vision, mobility disabilities, deafness, hard of hearing, or those with seizures or other cognitive disabilities, may require assistive technology to ensure access to websites and information such as PDF files. Speech recognition software, mouth sticks or eye tracking devices are necessary for those that cannot use their hands, or screen reader software may be necessary to convert text to speech.

Compatibility with All Forms of Assistive Technology: It is critical that developers build websites for individuals with a wide variety of disabilities in mind, and ensure that they are compatible with all forms of assistive technology. Ensuring compatibility warrants routine testing through automated checkers, supplemented by manual testing as well.  In June of 2019, OCR launched a national online accessibility team to investigate online programs and services of educational institutions and public libraries, and to provide technical assistance in these areas. Tasked with a variety of functions, the team is responsible for training about website accessibility, conducting direct investigations, processing complaints received from the public and providing technical assistance.

Steps to Take if Your Child Does not have Online Accessibility

We know that the field of online learning is evolving by the day, and that we must be patient as our schools navigate these unprecedented times.  Schools will design formulas for how students, remotely, will access education, special education and related services during the pandemic. However we cannot allow lack of accessibility to online tools of learning, in whatever form they take, to exclude students with disabilities. If you feel that you or your child (including a teen or college student home) is denied equal online accessibility because of a disability or otherwise being provided equal access to, we suggest that you or your adult child take the following steps:

  • Engage with School Educators and Administrators: If you have concerns about accessibility, reach out via email to your school educators and administrators and inquire about accessibility of the online tool, program or activity. Ask questions about its compatibility with assistive technology that is necessary for your child to access his education. Understand whether there is equally effective alternative access, available in another manner.
  • Contact OCR’s Web Accessibility Team: You may choose to encourage educators to contact, or take it upon yourself to contact directly, OCR’s Web Accessibility Team, which provides technical assistance, and investigates online programs. OCR’s team also investigates due process complaints if there is a violation of civil rights. OCR’s web accessibility team is reachable at ocrwebaccessta@ed.gov.
  • Contact a Special Education Attorney: If you believe that your school district is not adequately serving your child, and that online accessibility is not available to your child, in the same way as non-disabled peers, it is wise to consult with an attorney who specializes in education law. We at Littman Krooks are here to answer any questions, as well. Our office will be functioning through the outbreak—whether virtually or in-person—and please reach out to any of us.

Please remember that online learning is only as powerful as the access it provides. At Littman Krooks, we understand that this pandemic creates tremendous confusion and difficulty for individuals with disabilities and their families.  Please contact us with any questions.