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The Cutting Edge: Educational Innovation, Disability Law, and Civil Rights


Paul Grossman, and adapted by Emily B. Moore

05/22/15 to 05/28/15

Paul Grossman, Chief Regional Attorney (retired), Office of Civil Rights, United States Department of Education, describes foundational cases in the history of civil rights in the United States leading up to the current state of disability law, and its relationship to educational innovation. As Mr. Grossman guides us through civil rights history, it becomes clear that we are all part of an historic moment in time. The rapid development of new technologies provides unprecedented opportunities to support the rights of all students to have equal access to education.

This paper is adapted from Mr. Grossman’s keynote presentation at the annual Accessing Higher Ground conference (, November 17-21, 2014 in Westminster, Colorado (with permission).


Mr. Grossman has authored and contributed to numerous scholarly articles and books on disability discrimination, most recently, The Law of Disability Discrimination for Higher Education Professionals (LEXIS-NEXIS 2014).

This paper is adapted from Mr. Grossman’s keynote presentation at the annual Accessing Higher Ground conference (, November 17-21, 2014 in Westminster, Colorado (with permission). Video recording of the presentation, with real-time captioning, is available at: The audience was composed of civil rights advocates, disabled student service directors, college administrators and academic personnel, software developers, electronic information technology (EIT) experts and compliance officers. The objective of the speaker was to highlight the challenges and common ground these individuals share in making EIT accessible to students and other individuals with disabilities.



Together, we are at the cutting edge of the progression of disability law, innovation in education, and civil rights law in general. If we stay in our professional silos, if we do not collaborate at this very moment, we are going to miss not only a golden opportunity, but also a critical moment. Clearly technology – access to the digital world – is the issue of the moment in disability rights, and the precedents that we set in this area are spilling into and enhancing developments in other areas of civil rights.

I do not know how many of you remember James Burke and his program “Connections.” He would start out with something like a silk loom and get you up to an IBM computer. He would explain to you how one invention leads to another, how one innovation leads to another. I want to take you through a little civil rights history, through five or six stages of civil rights, because I want to place your work and where we are at in civil rights in context. I am going to walk you through some connections, and I want you to think about this as we proceed: What do the educational civil rights of a few Cantonese speaking children in Chinatown San Francisco have to do with your job? And the answer, as you will learn, is everything.


Stage 1: Connection to Wounded Warriors

Stage 1 of the five, maybe six, stages was the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Of course, this proclamation was about race, not about disability.

If you read the works of Abraham Lincoln, you know there was no time in his life that he thought slavery was a legitimate, good, or moral institution. However, his “solution” to the “slavery question” was to send African‑Americans back to Africa. That is what he expected to happen after the Civil War, but a radical change came over him. As African‑Americans entered the Union army, he realized that he could not expel from this nation the very people who had risked their lives to hold it together.

      So do we, in the digital world, have any connection to the Emancipation Proclamation? It is a bit of a stretch, and we will see much closer connections in later stages, but the answer is yes, because we now have thousands of wounded warriors coming back to the United States. Some of them are so disabled that the only way they are going to get access to a post‑secondary education is through assistive technology and access to the digital world.


Stage 2: Desegregation

We had the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and we decided that “separate but equal” was not a constitutional concept.  “Separate but equal” was stigmatizing. It suggested that one group of individuals was inferior to another. Is there a connection to the digital access world? 

I see two connections. When I worked for the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), I would frequently visit post‑secondary educational institutions. They would have a digital assistive technology lab, generally connected with the disabled student services office, but that was the one and only place that you could find assistive technology. You could not find it in the math lab or in the chemistry lab. But where were the teachers that those students needed for their particular professional choices? They were out in the math lab. They were out in the chemistry lab. So it has come to pass now that one way in which OCR has found violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is on a concept of segregation, because assistive technology is only available at the disabled student services office. In some of OCR’s bigger settlements, it is now required that adaptive technology is disbursed across the campus. 

I would also note that, conceptually, the opposite of segregation is integration. In this vein OCR has established “integration of the user” as one of the elements of providing equal educational opportunity. Can an individual with a disability integrate into your online learning system, or are we going to leave them by the side of the road, getting passed by progress?  


Stage 3: Disparate Treatment

The third stage is what we call in the law “disparate treatment” and that means that identically situated people should be treated the same. This concept is most often associated with a 1973 Supreme Court decision, McDonnell Douglas Corporation v. Green. As a simple example: you have a law firm, it has a rule, one hour for lunch. Nonetheless, Caucasian clerical employees are regularly permitted to take an hour and 15 minutes for lunch. An African‑American clerical employee is dismissed, and the grounds that she is dismissed on is taking an hour and 15 minutes for lunch. That is clearly discriminatory – it is disparate treatment.  Similarly-situated people should be treated by their employers in the same manner. Here equal treatment means identical treatment.


Stage 3 and Measures of Equality

Now, this is the last stage that many Americans accept as the sum and substance of our civil rights. But think for a minute. If you treat people with disabilities in a manner identical to that of people without disabilities – for instance, no such thing as reasonable accommodation, no such thing as academic adjustments, no such thing as use of assistive technology – are you always providing an equal educational opportunity? I think clearly the answer is no. 

So, although people sometimes gets stuck at Stage 3, this stage is two or three stages short of where the law requires us to go, and we need to support our colleagues to get to Stage 5 or Stage 6. And, of course, I will explain those stages in a moment. But I want you to pause for a second and think about: what are measures of equality

We had this very simple measure of equality, if white people can do this, then African‑American people, who are similarly situated, should be entitled to do it as well.  But in the digital world, what are the measures of equality? Together, we are going to have to think about what we want represented as the way to view or measure equality in the digital world


Stage 4: “Unnecessary Headwinds” - Disparate Impact

In 1970 we have a landmark decision by the Supreme Court, Griggs v. Duke Power.  This decision established a new approach to establishing discrimination called “disparate impact.”  This is one of the hardest legal concepts that I try to explain, and yet it is so very, very important to what we do.

In 1964, the Kennedy/Johnson Civil Rights Act passed. Title VII of this Act prohibits race discrimination in employment. Prior to 1965, Duke Power Company, in North Carolina, has lines of seniority organized the way most industrial lines of seniority were organized in the South, and sometimes, elsewhere in the country. You have a white line of seniority, and you have an African‑American line of seniority, and the top‑paying job in the African‑American line of seniority is just below the bottom‑paying job in the white line of seniority. So now, due to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that is illegal. What is Duke Power going to do? 

Duke Power Company says, we got it. We are going to go to objective selection criteria. From now on, to get the higher‑paying jobs – no longer denominated by race – you must have a high school diploma and get a passing score on the Wonderlic and Bennett quick intelligence tests. The job in question that the Supreme Court of the United States looked at was Steam Generator Operator. By the way, if you miss‑operate a steam generator, you will kill everyone in the generator plant when it blows up, and you will cut off power to hundreds of thousands of people. This job entails a lot of responsibility.  

Here is the important thing to understand in this case. When the US Justice Department argued this case in the Supreme Court, it might have argued that these criteria were adopted by Duke Power Company to keep African‑Americans down. But that is not what they said were the facts. They, instead, hypothesized that if you were a white person and did not meet the criteria, Duke Power would not hire you as a Steam Generator Operator. And if you were an African‑American person and you met those criteria, Duke Power would hire you.

Wait a minute, aren’t similarly situated people being treated the same? Sounds like it to me. Either you meet the qualifications or you do not. If you meet the qualifications, you are in. If you do not, you are out. So what is the problem? Let me be clear. No evidence was introduced of an intent to discriminate, to have a purpose of discriminating. 

What is wrong is that, if you are a white male in North Carolina in 1965, your chances of having a high school diploma, albeit small, are three times greater than that of an African‑American (12% v. 34%). Similarly, your chance of getting a passing score on the quick intelligence tests, never normed on an African‑American population, is about 10 times greater (58% v. 6%). 

The outcome, even though the rule is neutral on its face, is discriminatory. So here is what the Supreme Court (and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC]) said, if these criteria are valid predictors of who will do the job of Steam Generator Operator well, more power to you. Use your criteria. Let the chips fall where they may. But if they are not a good predictor of who will do the job well, what you have here is an “unnecessary headwind.”  Got it? You have a rule, a standard, a criterion that greatly reduces the opportunity for employment by African‑Americans, but has no actual value. It looks objective, but it is not. It purports to be about merit, but it is not.

Now, this concept, intent‑free disparate impact, is at the heart of the regulations that OCR, the Department of Justice, and advocacy groups such as the National Federation for the Blind use when they look at your universities. They are not arguing that you hate people with disabilities. They are not arguing that you were trying to disadvantage people with disabilities. They are arguing that your “method of administration,” how you do business, has a discriminatory impact, and unless it is an undue burden to undo that discriminatory impact, unless it's a fundamental alteration to undo that discriminatory impact, you are guilty of disparate impact discrimination. 


Stage 4 and Disability Law

Is this concept of disparate impact accepted in disability law?

Along comes the Supreme Court case of Alexander v. Choate in 1985. The question in Alexander v. Choate is, did it violate Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to cut Kentucky Medicaid benefits from 20 to a 14‑day maximum? 


Figure 1. Alexander v. Choate: Relationship to Section 504, and determination of “meaningful access”.

You can see from the statistics in Figure 1 that people with disabilities were much more harshly affected by this rule than people without disabilities. The Supreme Court said yes, you could use disparate impact analysis to look at this issue. 

But, if the cut still allows people with disabilities to have “meaningful access” – their words, then it still might not be discriminatory. Since 95% of disabled persons who enter the hospital are out in 14 days or less, individuals with disabilities still have meaningful access. Note, here, “meaningful access” seems to be a limitation on the duty to accommodate – it is a shield. Later, you will see that “meaningful access” is a sword, because colleges and universities must provide meaningful access to every one of their programs and activities, including those that are provided through digital technology and media.  

Out of this case comes a standard which your colleges and universities must meet, and also comes a concept, which is very important to equal educational opportunity, that of meaningful access

I just want to show you something here in the Section 504 Disparate Impact regulations in Figure 2.



Figure 2. Section 504 – Disparate Impact

When you buy software, you going through a “contractual, licensing or other arrangement”. You may not discriminate. You may not “provide an aid, benefit or service that is not as effective as that provided to others”. Nor may you adopt criteria that discriminate. Remember Griggs v. Duke Power? Criteria or methods of administration – which is how you acquire your software, how you operate your online programs – that have the effect of subjecting individuals with disabilities to discrimination is prohibited. This concept comes right out of this Supreme Court law. 

I want you to know that the ADA Title II says almost the same thing. And there is one more tick in Title II, and that is the concept of maintenance of access. It says you must maintain your accessible features. In other words, when you set up a system of assistive or accessible technology, you cannot just let it slide. You have to keep it in conformance with disability law. You have to keep it operating in an accessible manner. 


Stage 5: Identical Treatment is not always Equal Treatment

Remember my earlier question, what do kids in Chinatown San Francisco have to do with your job? Well, here we are. The case that went to the Supreme Court was Kinmon Lau, a child who resides in Chinatown San Francisco, versus Nichols, who was then the Superintendent of schools in San Francisco. Lau v. Nichols was brought by the Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights in 1974. What is going on in this case? There is Lau in Chinatown. Young Mr. Lau only speaks Cantonese, and his teachers only speak English. Lau, through the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, argues that not addressing his unique language characteristics is discriminatory. The San Francisco Unified School District says, you must be nuts. We give the children in San Francisco, in Chinatown, the exact same qualified teachers, same years of experience, same dollars per pupil, same square footage classroom space, same books and on and on. Name an objective comparative factor and we do just as well in Chinatown as we do in the wealthiest parts of San Francisco.

We (OCR) say through a document called the May 25th Memorandum, that OCR has the authority to interpret what is equal educational opportunity under Title
VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and we have decided that public school districts must take into account the fact that not everyone comes to the starting line with the same basic skills and same basic characteristics. To not take these differences into account is discriminatory. Is it starting to get clear where we are heading? The Supreme Court says, we are not going so far as to say that it is self-evidently discriminatory to fail to treat these national origin minority children differently. What we are going to say is that, the Office of Civil Rights has the authority to interpret what “equal” means and requires within its expertise. If it wants to say, identical treatment is not always equal treatment that is within its authority.

The authority of the Department of Education to look at people who are uniquely situated and decide that school districts must do something affirmative or positive for them is affirmed in Lau v. Nichols. I was there in Washington and I helped prepare the head of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, J. Stanley Pottinger, for his argument before the Supreme Court in Lau. Here is the inside baseball that I want you to know – the minute that the Supreme Court decided that OCR had the authority to decide identical treatment is not always equal treatment was the moment OCR decided we have the authority to issue regulations on behalf of individuals with disabilities and conclude that reasonable accommodation, academic adjustments, and related aids and services (assistive technology) may be necessary in order to provide equal educational opportunity. Without Lau, your mission would not exist. 


Stage 5 and Reasonable Accommodation at Colleges and Universities

The Supreme Court next confronts this question in Southeastern Community College v. Davis in 1974. Ms. Davis is a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) who wants to become a Registered Nurse (RN). Southeastern Community College interviews her and realizes she is an individual who is deaf. Very wisely, they did not tell her to go away. Instead, they called other colleges and asked if they had ever had a nursing student who is deaf? How did you work with her? All of the schools said, we have not done it. We do not see how you could safely do it. Then Southeastern Community College called the state licensing entity and asked, would you admit to the practice of nursing a deaf nurse? And the licensing board said no, not safe. So Southeastern Community College told Ms. Davis, sorry, we have looked into this. We have thought about this carefully. We cannot find a way to license you as a safe individual. We will not admit you to our program. So Davis sues.

The case goes all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court hears two very different positions argued. Davis argues, whatever I cannot do because of my disability, you cannot hold against me. You cannot make it a selection criterion. So if, for example, I cannot hear in the stethoscope, you cannot hold that against me. Section 504 says you cannot discriminate on the basis of disability, and that is what you would be doing. The College argues the polar opposite position, which is, the only thing Section 504 tells us is we cannot arbitrarily exclude people because of disabilities. We cannot have a rule that says “no people with disabilities need apply”. But beyond that, we have no duty. So if this were old‑fashioned, purposeful, Stage Three disparate treatment, discrimination, yes, Section 504 would cover it. Forget about Stages Four or Five.

The Supreme Court Justices, in their wisdom, found a middle ground. They said yes, you do not have to admit to the practice of nursing someone who cannot, even with the benefit of “modifications” (reasonable accommodations), meet your essential qualifications. In other words, providing reasonable accommodation is an element of determining qualification.  Today, if a student cannot meet a college’s essential academic and technical standards, even with accommodations, like assistive technology, alternate media or captioning, then, okay, he or she is not a qualified individual. Nor are colleges and universities required to provide modifications that are “unreasonable,” that is accommodations that entail a “fundamental alteration” of their programs or a lowering of essential academic standards.  However, if with auxiliary aids and services that are reasonable, a student can meet the college’s standards, then the student is a qualified individual with a disability and entitled to the full protections of Section 504 and ADA.


Stage 5 and Measures of Equality

The May 25th Memorandum was the OCR guidance that the Supreme Court approved in Lau. We now have digital analogies to the May 25th Memorandum, and it comes up through the Dear Colleague Kindle Letter in 2010. To make a long story short, Amazon wanted to do to the bookstore what iTunes did to the record store. They wanted to eliminate the bookstore by having students buy all of their books online through Amazon, and they would be read on the Kindle reader. To promote this idea, they set up pilot test sites where they would give a free Kindle reader to every student enrolled in a Kindle‑only course section. These were mostly STEM classes, by the way. 

What was wrong with this? At the time, the Kindle Reader was not accessible to people who were blind or people with severe low vision. Well, wait a minute. The Kindle Reader will read the text aloud. Yes, if you can find a way to tell it to do so. But unfortunately, the only way to tell it to read the text aloud was to use the pull‑down menu, and the pull‑down menu was not accessible to individuals who are blind or people with severe low vision.

So, the National Federation for the Blind decides to file four complaints with OCR, and one complaint with the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice makes an example of Arizona State University, and takes it into court. OCR opens up cases against Western Reserve, Pace University, Princeton, and Reed College. In response to these complaints, OCR and the Department of Justice say, the exclusive use of the Kindle is discriminatory, because this way of delivering information has the impact of excluding students who are blind or low vision.

Here is the insight that I want you to take away from the Kindle cases: the most important thing to look at is what measures of “equal treatment” OCR and the Department of Justice applied in finding noncompliance – because these are not measures of equality applied historically in race, national origin, or gender cases. These measures are new, first introduced and applied in the digital world. The measures are: can the student “acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, enjoy the same services as sighted students, with substantially equivalent ease of use”. This is not bare‑bones access, is it? This is not having someone sit next to you in the library and read to you, which, before the Kindle cases came out, was pretty much what would have been acceptable in the law. 

Here they have given you four new measures of compliance, and the reason for these measures is to see that individuals with disabilities get to work independently and self‑sufficiently. Independence and self-sufficiency become, from the Kindle Letter on, measures of equality.

So, I am going to share from the guidance that is found in the OCR Dear Colleague Kindle Letter, the guidance that came out following the settlements in the Kindle cases. The Dear Colleague letter states:

Requiring use of an emerging technology in a classroom environment when the technology is inaccessible to an entire population of individuals, in this instance individuals with visual disabilities, is discrimination prohibited by Section 504 and the ADA unless those individuals are provided accommodations or modifications that permit them to receive all – an important modifier – the educational benefits provided by technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.


What is this telling you about ad hoc, after‑the‑fact “work‑arounds”? I think it is telling you that on the horizon ad hoc solutions will not be an acceptable way to establish, achieve, or demonstrate compliance. 


Stage 6: Is the Tail Wagging the Dog?

I have to get to the last stage here, which is, “Is the tail wagging the dog?”  In other words, are the developments and standards that we have recently adopted in the digital world now going to go back into the brick and mortar world? I want to highlight one example, and that is in voting – access to the digital voting booth.

In a 2011 Federal Court case, Center for Independence v.
the court accepted as true that in New York City, 80% of all polling places have some form of access barrier. What the Board of Election Commissioners in New York City told the court in response to this was, whenever somebody gets on the phone and tells us, this adapted voting machine is not working, we just rush on down through the streets of New York and fix it. The court said, that is no good. Nor can the City get around this responsibility by pointing out that there is ballot by mail or that a person could sit next to the individual with a disability and help him or her with filling out a ballot. The Board of Elections' ad hoc policy of addressing barriers to access as they occur is inadequate, especially as the record shows that the Board of Elections Commissioners does not respond to many accessibility issues, even after they are brought to its attention. So, the rejection of ad hocism in the digital world is now starting to filter back into other areas of disability rights and civil rights. 



The measures or characteristics of equality have been expanded and changed over time to include: Independence of the user, integration of the user, ease of use of technology, timeliness of delivery of information, completeness of the accessible information. Equal access to information is achieved by making information available in formats that are compatible with common adaptive technology, like Jaws and ZoomText. Making access an explicit element in acquisition and implementation of technology programs and online services is going to be required. 

We are hugely dependent on the gains made by people of color, by national origin minority people, and the gender rights movement. Now the ball is in our court to make the advances. And our advances, if we do them right, will actually spill over or spill back to help in the rights of everyone. So, we must – lawyers, software engineers, DSS officers, faculty, deans – we must come out of our silos and join together, do our best thinking, and aggressively address the fact that there is a revolutionary change going on in education, one that pertains to digital information and technology, and if we do not include access for individuals with disabilities as a critical element in planning for and executing this change, we are going to leave a huge population of individuals by the side of the road in violation of the law and their human rights and contrary the best interests of this nation.  


Bob Belford's picture

Hi Paul and Emily,

Thank you for sharing this thought provoking and informative paper with us. I am going to ask you two different, but related questions.

First, what could we do to make these ConfChem papers more accessible to people with disabilities? Now realize we are volunteers and run this site without a budget, but pretend we had one. What improvements could we make?

Second, I recently became familiar with H5P, which I believe is a project of the Norwegian government, and has many tools that I would think would be of interest to educators who use animations, . My question is, is there a repository of digital tools targeting the needs of people with disabilities, that are open source and which developers of digital educational material could use to improve the accessibility of their material? Something like these at H5P, , but targeting a different need.

I guess you can sum up my questions as: What can we do? and Where can we get the resources to do it?

As I wrote this I realized I actually have a third related question, which approaches your stage 5 and measures of equality section, and the inadequacy of "ad hoc" solutions. That is, how do we know if we have a problem, and someone is having problems accessing our material? We archive these ConfChem papers and make them freely available to anyone on the web, no one has ever contacted me and said there is a problem. It seems to me that the first step to fixing a problem is to recognize it exists, and it seems you are saying that is too late, and in essence, we need to fix it before we know it exists. Is that what you are saying? What guidance do you have?

I think the common theme of all these questions is; are we doing something wrong with the way we run ConfChem? And if so, what can we do about it?

I do appreciate your sharing this paper with us.
Bob Belford

rpendarvis's picture

I know you have worked very hard to ensure a well function online conference.

The log on to participate has not worked well for me. Even when I have written my password in a text file and cut and pasted it the system often will not recognize it. While one can access by clicking the forgotten password link, it adds enough trouble to the process that I rarely do anything but lurk.

I am still here and find the papers to be very well crafted and the discussion has been helpful.

Best Wishes

Bob Belford's picture

Thanks Richard,

I am not sure what we can do, but once you have logged in you should be able to go to "My Account" , then "Edit" and change your password. Now it flags low strength passwords as needing to be improved, but it accepts them when you save it, or at least it does when I do that from the admin menu. So you can make a password like AAA . If that does not work, why don't you, or anyone else having similar problems contact me off list,, as an administrator I can set a simple password like AAA, (but I can not see or copy passwords, only change them).

I personally see no need for high security passwords here, as the only information we have is your name and email address, but we do want people to have to log in, as otherwise we will get hit by bots and the like. I used to use a captcha to allow people to create their own accounts (with admin approval), but filtering through the bots was taking more time than simply having people contact me. But we clearly must use passwords, or the bots and forum spammers will post tons of junk. But contact me off list if the above does not work.


Emily Moore's picture

Hi Bob,

Thank you for the questions. I believe Paul will also respond, but I wanted to jump in with a few thoughts.

For “What can we do?” – I think there are a number of things. I’ll share a bit about my personal experiences learning about accessibility to help contextualize my suggestions. Over the past year, I have become increasingly involved with the accessible technology and inclusive design communities as part of some new accessibility initiatives at PhET. Over this time, two core ideas have emerged as particularly key, and these now shape the way I think about think about digital accessibility, interactive simulation design, and learners. Here is a brief description of these two ideas:

1) A useful way to think about accessibility is to consider a disability as a mismatch between what the person/student/learner/user needs, and what the technology they are using is able to afford.
From the Inclusive Design Research Centre in Ontaria, Canada (
“Rather than a personal characteristic or a binary state (disabled vs. non-disabled), disability is framed as: a mismatch between the needs of the individual and the design of the product, system or service. With this framing, disability can be experienced by anyone excluded by the design.… Accessibility is therefore the ability of the design or system to match the requirements of the individual. It is not possible to determine whether something is accessible unless you know the user, the context and the goal.”

2) There is no such thing as a completely accessible…anything. In many instances in education, there are rules regarding accessibility – certain things must be provided in certain ways in certain cases – but checking off all the boxes in a set of accessibility standards does not make a website or LMS or visualization “perfectly” accessible, it just makes it more accessible than it was before. Essentially, you can always make a resource more accessible. This means we’re all in the same boat – no one has it all figured out. Instead, we’re all just working towards more accessibility – which (to me) is the same thing as saying we’re all working towards the inclusion of more diverse learners in education. There’s a wonderful paper by Jutta Treviranus entitled “The Value of Imperfection: The Wabi-Sabi Principle in Aesthetics and Learning” that discusses this more eloquently -

So with these two ideas in mind, here are my suggestions for your “What can we do?” question.
• First, check out some resources regarding accessible web pages. A community of folks ( have gotten together and tackled standards for basic website access ( These standards boil down to ensuring that the website content is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. These are the complete technical descriptions. Another version of the same standards that I find a bit more readable can be found at While you’re at the WebAIM website, check out some of their other resources – there have a lot of great stuff, including a nice introduction to web accessibility with videos of users running into common access issues.
• Second, (for college-level folks) visit your institution’s Disability Services office (or equivalent) and say hello! There may be many resources available through your institution that you are not yet aware of.
• Attend a conference/workshop on accessibility in higher education. For example, AHEAD ( is a community of faculty and disability services professionals that share resources and experiences to support students in higher education. Some of their conference material is available online. To learn more digital accessibility in general (not education specific), Environments for Humans puts on a virtual Accessibility Summit each fall (Sept. 8-9, 2015), which includes many well-known folks in the accessibility community describing different aspects of digital accessibility (from UX design to technical implementation).

Because this post is so long already, I’ll respond to your question about open-source technical resources in a second post.

Emily Moore's picture

Hi Bob,

Now I’m getting to the question of “Where can we get the resources?”.

For resources regarding increasing accessibility of websites, I would suggest checking out the W3C website:

For the accessibility of interactive visualizations, the truth is, many needed standards do not (yet) exist. There is a wonderful opportunity right now for those of us that work in chemistry visualizations to join with others and shape how we make our resources more accessible for our students (and teachers).

There are many components to making dynamic and interactive content more accessible. You can incorporate sound, text, keyboard navigation, even haptic feedback, etc. Implementation of these requires technical infrastructure as well as a design process to refine the outcome into something intuitive and user-friendly.

Technical specifications for how to support assistive devices to “see” the accessibility features included in an interactive visualization are in progress. Part of the work PhET has been engaged in regarding accessibility (which we can discuss more during next week’s Paper 8 discussion) has been determining the current state of technical implementation of accessibility features for our HTML5 sims. Essentially, how do we incorporate high-quality accessibility features into our sims in a way that is as generalizable, reusable, and cross-browser and cross-platform compatible as possible.

From the design perspective, some very useful guidelines do exist, for example, NCAM (the National Center for Accessible Media) has very nice guidelines for creating descriptions of math and science images – for example, When it comes to descriptions of dynamic chemistry content, this is something *we* need to create. For example, what would auditory descriptions of Roy Tasker’s chemistry animations look like – descriptions capable of supporting someone without vision or with low vision to understand what was being represented? What about sonification of Roy Tasker’s animations, or keyboard navigation for Resa Kelly’s Electronic Learning Tools, or haptic feedback for Elon and Sharona’s MeParticle-WeMatter simulation? As a community, we can come together and create, refine, and test guidelines such as these – and open up new research avenues for studying multimodal learning materials that benefit all students, including students with disabilities.

Bob Belford's picture

As I was reading Emily's response to another question I realized one of the projects I have been working on could assist people with some types of disabilities in accessing online resources, and I wanted to know if there are current technologies likeit. Many people on this list are familiar with the WikiHyperGlossary, which I first reported to this community in the 2006 Newsletter,
and just published the first real comprehensive article in the Journal of Cheminformatics
(only the provisional pdf is up right now, as there were some problems with the videos in supporting documents). We also made the technology open source, and the above article shows how to access it.

The WikiHyperGlossary is a social and semantic web information literacy technology that uses the lexicon of a discipline to connect documents to resources of the discipline, including animations. It not only parses documents against glossaries, but creates glossaries. Now animations can have two components, audio and visual, and a person who can not access one of those has a disability, right? For example, lets say you are visually impaired, then being able to hear what is being said would help. The WHG is not a text->audio translation service, but a service to provide the implicit information the author assumed the reader knew, and we could generate an audio recording function that would allow wiki contributors to "speak" their posts, in addition to typing them. In fact years ago I created a prototype with the idea of using it to generate a multilingual glossary, but had too many classes to teach.... OK, now that I have given some background, let me ask two questions.

1. How can one get an overview of the current state of the art for digital technologies that assist people with disabilities in accessing online material? Is there a recent review of the state of the art? Are there open source development communities?

2. Are there audio-file based Wikis, or should I say, Wikis with audio recorders embedded into the user interface? That is, is there a Wiki out there where in addition to being able to enter information by keyboard, you can also speak into a microphone, and contribute an audio file? I realize the dynamics of editing the "hear-able" content would be different than the "view-able" content, but is this something one should consider developing? Has someone already done it?


Emily Moore's picture

Hi Bob,

For Question 1: the most central organization for the state of the art for accessibility online that I am aware of is the W3C: It also might be helpful to check out WebAIM’s website:, they have some very easy to read descriptions of best practices in accessibility with examples.

For Question 2: Let me know if I am understanding this correctly. If the wiki is in html, the text is probably accessible with a screen reader (like this comment on the ConfChem website). You can turn on VoiceOver (the Mac built in screen reader or try NVDA – a free screen reader you can download here: and try it out. If you’re referring to some other type of content let me know.

One of the benefits to having your content accessible by screen reader is that it allows customization of what and how people hear the content. For example, some screen reader users listen to text at very high speeds, and are used to this. Also, people use shortcut keys to navigate with their screen readers, so being forced to have figure out the navigation of auditory information that you implement on their screen could decrease the usability of your site for these users.

On the other hand, many folks can benefit from hearing text, even if they are not screen reader users – for example, not all people with low or no vision use a screen reader. I am not a screen reader user, and do not have any significant vision issues, but I like to hear text read to me sometimes, for example, when my eyes get tired from reading on-screen text for many hours at a time. It could also provide more of a community feel to have the option to hear the voice of the contributor.

So probably, supporting one or the other option would reach different audiences, and supporting both would reach the most.

Regarding software for attaching audio recordings to wiki content automatically, I’m not aware of anything like this, but others out there might be.

SDWoodgate's picture

I am intrigued by the idea of a screen reader which, if I am correct, can read the content of any web page.

Has anybody had experience with NVDA and reading chemistry??

Although I don’t use NVDA myself, I use other commercially available text-to-speech screen readers. I spoke to a colleague yesterday who is also blind, and he indicates NVDA can now read chemical and mathematical equations. This up until recently has always been a major access challenge. To do this, you must download a program called, “Math Player.” We both were under the mindset that this program is available for free from At one time, it was available for a nominal fee. Once you have Math Player installed, it can render the technical content in what is known as a, “Mathml file.” Once in that form, NVDA should be able to read it. Please note that as of now, this is a very new feature and thus its viability is still not widely known. Therefore, I would be curious to know your success with this effort.

Emily, I want to first start this comment off with a big Thank you to Paul Grossman and you for sharing this presentation with us.
I can only speak from my own experience as a totally blind chemist on this topic.

I also realize that a lot of what Paul Grossman spoke about can be very unpleasant for many of us as chemistry educators. So often, we as educators see something that is really innovative that illustrates that chemical concept and thus we adopt it. In this case, the use of animations or other neat on-line assessment packages for our students.

We however do not typically take into account students that may not be able to benefit in the same way as the rest of the students in the course.
I can call out a number of companies on this list, but I won't do that because there are so many. I can share with you a note I received from one STEM technology firm when asked about how accessible their data collection software platform is. The comment states, "Accessibility is not a priority of ours right now." This comment was sent despite the solution that was proposed was very simple to implement and would have taken less than five minutes to put in place. I am sad to say the landscape of the STEM education industry for the most part feels similar to this comment. Until the customer base meaning all of our institutions stands up to the STEM education industry and mandates products be accessible, the brunt of the accessibility concerns will fall on us and our academic institutions.

Unfortunately, we as faculty are not experts in accessibility either. Therefore, we deploy technologies in our classrooms that may or may not be fully accessible to students with disabilities. As a result, we can get our institution into legal trouble as a result of this decision. You can surf the web to find a number of schools that are in that exact situation. Some of you on this list may be involved in those legal disagreements at this time. These things arise not because we are bad people intentionally trying to keep people out of our profession, but rather, it happens because we don't always factor in to our decisions that we make as faculty members the greater picture. We as faculty members are also quite busy with our teaching and our research that we don't take the time to educate ourselves on the needs of all of our students.

It is easy to say, if the student was smart enough to get into my course, they are smart enough to succeed or fail in my course. That notion has long since died with the dinosaur I am sad to say. Also, with regards to the technologies we decide to use in our classroom whether they are commercial or open source, our institutions are still responsible for making them accessible. This I do not think is fair, but it is what the Department of Justus mandates of us at this time. Therefore, I cannot point you to one end all portals with all the answers of accessibility. This is a serious question that should be discussed more at length, but I am glad it has started here. I would urge you all not to simply act like this question never came up.
That is the easy way out.

I would ask us all as the most innovative progressive chemical educators in the world to ask ourselves, "How can I make my teaching more inclusive for all learners." If any group of educators is up for tackling this challenge, it is us.

Bob Belford's picture

Hi Cary and all,

I hope you don't mind this post, but as the ConfChem list moderator I helped you log in today, and with all honesty, it was an experience for me. I have observed blind people before, and honestly did my best to keep out of their way and make sure I caused no surprises, thinking that was the best thing to do. But I have never interacted with a blind person as they navigated a cognitive task, like navigating a web page. I have also never interacted with a blind student.

It seems to me that part of the crux of this paper is that even though I have never had a blind student, I need to ready for one, and I do trust my institution to provide the expertise when that happens. But this conference is about interactive simulations for teaching and learning, and I think I can speak for any developer, we all would want our material to be accessible to anyone. I mean that is why we make them, right? (Who wants to make something that no one uses?) But I do not see how we can honestly tackle this problem if we have never seen a blind person navigate a web page.

Is there a web site service we can submit our animations [read web pages] to, and have video recordings made of how a blind person would navigate them? These could be sent out to blind people, and they could have a colleague film them, and then return the video to the service, and once there, they could be posted in a public archive. What I am trying to say is that until you have interacted with someone having a problem, you are not really in a position to help them solve the problem. And please forgive me if one of Emily's links had this on it, I have not had time to go through them all.

Also, please understand that although I am using blindness as the topic of this post, the concept should be transferable to any disability. It seems that the first step to helping someone with a disability is to observe it, to try and understand what is going on, and go from there.

With great admiration and respect,

rpendarvis's picture

I have had one legally blind student. Actually she had some vision and might better have been described as severely visually impaired. In that class, I had a set of notes already on reserve at the library and disabled student services made enlarged copies for her and even provided a reader/tutor. They also enlarged her tests and provided an alternative location with extra time as required by law. (1.5 x standard as best as I can remember.) The lab was a bigger challenge but I was not teaching the lab at that time. I understand that disabled services paid to have a student who had had some chemistry assist her by mostly doing the experiments while she took notes. I do not know what problems were involved but I am guessing that it did not go off as planned. She made a B in the course and then transferred to the U. of Florida.

That is my only experience for what it is worth.

Richard Pendarvis

With regards to access in the laboratory, we all I am sure would agree that students learn best when they are given the opportunity to do the lab work themselves.
That being said, often when you pair a visually impaired student with a sighted counterpart, it can reinforce the notion in that student’s mind that they cannot be a scientist. This is as a result of this passive approach to learning. This idea is reinforced often thus leading to a major under representation of persons with various disabilities in the STEM workforce.
I am not saying that providing students with various disabilities direct hands-on experiences is easy. That is usually not the case. It is often very dependent on the creativity of faculty and other support staff to determine how this can be made possible. I believe this should be done if the student in question has a strong interest in STEM. If that is the case, faculty and university support staff should be committed to making this happen. However, often it is easier to defer to ignorance on the subject matter and push it under the rug. I hope that doesn’t happen often, however, I have heard many testimonies over the years from students with various disabilities, “I would have studied chemistry if…” Then they go into some long story about how their instructor did not do a number of things.
I have found it is easier to discourage rather than encourage.
Richard, I would like to commend you in this case on your encouragement of this student to work hard and get through your course. I am sure the experience was an educational and positive one. More instructors I feel should be welcoming of students with various disabilities into both lecture and laboratory.

Emily Moore's picture

Hi Bob,

As I have been working on accessibility features for PhET simulations, I have also been grappling with the issue of how to design for needs I may have never experienced or observed personally. Here's what I've come up with: We can never really know exactly how users will make use of the affordances designed into our tools and resources, but well designed affordances - informed by users - will be used.

Teachers and students (i.e., humans) will make use of well-designed tools with many affordances in ways that the designer cannot anticipate. This isn't a bad thing, in fact it is a great thing! For example, consider Twitter. In addition to being a place where you can follow your favorite Hollywood stars and see what they ate for lunch, Twitter has also become a major tool for supporting rescue and recovery during major disasters - with dissertations written on data mining from Twitter feeds during disasters. I doubt that's what the creators of Twitter initially had mind.

When it comes to accessibility, there is no "blind" user experience, or "deaf" user experience, or "fill in the blank" user experience. Each user (and use) is unique. Not all blind people use screen readers. Not all people with low vision use a screen magnifier. For inputting information, some folks use keyboards, or a mouse, or a switch device, or a sip & puff device, or a customized device that you have no way of knowing even know exists.

I can't know all the combinations of needs and preferences...but I can increase the number of modalities available to access the information and experience provided by the resources I develop. I know that there is a range of input options that people can use, and I can add keyboard navigation implemented in a way that allows many assistive input devices access to the resources. I know that for some, it would be preferred to be able to hear the information provided in a visualization, and I can support access to hearing the information by providing screen reader access, text descriptions, sonification, and captioning and ways of selecting which of these options the user wants and does not want.

I can also test these features with users, including those with and without disabilities to inform the design. Note that this user testing is not so that I can design features *solely* to meet the specific needs and preferences of those in the user testing - rather, the user testing informs my understanding of the affordances that are needed, and how to design for broad use. There is a community of people working on understanding how to design for the most broad and diverse use...using personas and edge cases and other useful ideas and tools - so we're not alone!

I am very grateful to Emily Moore and Robert Belford for the opportunity to participate in ConfChem. It has been an eye-opening experience!

First, I have been highly impressed with the level of innovation, creativity, and commitment the conference participants have to teaching complex topics in radically new ways---modalities with great promise. This promise carries with it many potential advancements. The obvious one is developing great science and scientists. There is more. As advocates and voters every American may influence public policy including ones that pertain to the funding and prioritization scientific research projects. But though everyone may influence science policy, few of us have the knowledge necessary to advocate for good choices. I believe that implementation of some of these innovations in teaching could make many more Americans better informed about science. How could these new modalities be used to teach about global warming, for example? Finally, multi-input instruction (e.g. narrative and graphics), built on new technologies, seems at the core of nearly all the innovations under consideration by ConfChem participants. Everyone, including individuals with disabilities, learn best from multi-input instruction. What you have under consideration today could well be a standard element of universal design in instruction tomorrow.

The US Justice Department and the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights have clearly expressed, as a legal imperative, that advances in digital information technology as a teaching tool must be applied universally, to the advantage of all students. Nonetheless, my best guess is that these agencies have very little understanding of the kinds of innovations you all are developing or what else is coming down the road. It is one thing to contemplate how to make a common course management tool, or web site, or a basic on-line learning course accessible. There are people who can answer these questions and the courts respect their knowledge. However, it is quite another thing to contemplate how to make accessible to an individual who is blind a virtual model of a molecule, one that the student can “walk through,” and manipulate into other compounds.

As a lawyer with unimpaired vision and no training in technology, I am likely the last person to answer this type of cutting edge question. This is the reason I have remained silently, so far, through the course of this on-line discussion. But I have been giving this a great deal of thought. I have five initial answers:
• One of the first places we should turn for answers or a least get help in traveling in the right direction is scientists, chemistry teachers, technologists, etc. who are themselves individuals with visual impairments. For such individuals, necessity is a powerful “mother of invention.” In my practice, I always look first to individuals with disabilities to tell me about effective and feasible accommodations. And, fortunately, we have individuals who fit this description participating in ConfChem.
• The challenge of converting graphic information into verbal information is not entirely new. Some individuals are quite skilled at creating clear narrative descriptions of complex visual representations. It would be helpful to bring such individuals into the conversation; perhaps asking for examples of existing narrations or inviting them to provide sample narratives of some of the newly developed models.
• In working with disabled student service directors, I am aware that some success has been had in the past in creating tactile models of virtual images. For example, maps and graphs have been readily converted to thermal plastic, vacuum-processed, two dimensional charts. Perhaps developments in 3D printing will enable even more complex tactile model- making.
• Finally, far more collaboration is needed between those individuals who are innovators in teaching science and those individuals who are innovators in making the on-line world accessible to individuals with disabilities. To this end, I have reached out this week to leaders in the field on accessible on-line instruction. I have shared with them some of your questions. I will do my best to begin some bridge building between these two communities. If my efforts are successful, I will certainly let you all know.