The intent of the WCAG 2.0 Level AA guidelines is to provide a level of accessibility suitable for most individuals. In the education setting, adoption of these guidelines in the procurement process can help to minimize the need to provide alternative materials. Decreasing the variance in materials can increase equity in the education experience for students with disabilities and brings it much closer to the experience of students without disabilities.
In some cases, however, even after procuring or developing software with accessibility standards, it may still be necessary and allowable to provide alternatives to individual students based on their needs. For the most part, these instances will fit into one of the following two cases.
1. When a student’s disability requires it.
Enforcement actions by the Office of Civil Rights have shown a preference for schools to provide all students with the same material or software whenever technically possible. For instance, a school procuring a new digital science textbook cannot adopt a text that is not fully keyboard navigable for one set of students while providing a different, keyboard accessible text to those with disabilities.
A student having an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is not in itself an indication that alternative materials or software are necessary or appropriate. Alternatives provided in the case of a student’s disabilities should be reserved for instances in which a product that meets an accessibility standard equivalent to the WCAG 2.0 Level AA is still not sufficient to meet the needs of a particular student or where that student’s disability requires an alternative. Such a necessity should then be designated in the student’s IEP.
2. When it would fundamentally alter the tech or instruction.
Technology continues to evolve more rapidly than accessibility standards and assistive technologies can keep up. More classrooms are incorporating tools like 3-D math modeling and virtual reality that can take students on field trips to distant places and even back in time. These innovative tools are providing new opportunities for students but often are not yet at a place where they can be completely accessible for all students.
In many of these cases, requiring strict conformance to accessibility standards would limit the development and use of new tools for students by requiring fundamental alterations to the technology itself and prohibiting teachers from using it in the classroom altogether. The former stunts the development of the technology and the latter prohibits it from ever becoming accessible.
A fundamental change is the key term for this exception; an inconvenience to a provider to include adjustable contrast ratios or eliminate keyboard traps would not qualify nor would a change to instruction that simply requires exchanging one digital textbook for a similar digital text. Fundamental changes might include dialing a virtual reality tool, which includes 360 degree, constantly changing and interactive images, back to interactive still images, or, on the instruction side, having digital textbooks and a digital instruction plan or not.
Vendors should still be incorporating those individual accessibility standards into technologies whenever possible and work to improve those standards which may not yet be conducive to new technology.