The Kentucky Accessible Information Technology In Schools Project
The Kentucky Accessible Information Technology In Schools (AITIS) Project was developed to provide Kentucky public school systems with the tools and resources necessary to understand and comply with Kentucky's Accessible Information Technology Act. The AITIS Project has developed state accessibility guidelines designed to create effective district-level policy for schools, has conducted surveys to measure the level of district awareness and activity, and has provided direct technical assistance supports to school system personnel to ensure that computer mediated and computer assisted learning strategies and other information technology (IT) components are not "locking out" students with disabilities.
In 2000, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a far-reaching law, commonly called the Kentucky Accessible Information Technology (AIT) Act, KRS 61.980 - 61.988, which requires that all state-supported institutions utilize information technology resources that are accessible to people with disabilities. This law explicitly covers school districts, universities, and all other institutions supported with state funds. As one of the "covered entities" under this statute, school districts are required to ensure that the information technology they use will provide students with disabilities with access "that is equivalent to the access provided individuals who are not disabled" (KRS 61.982). As a means of determining conformity with this provision, Kentucky law further defines that the level of access provided by school systems and other covered entities must be in compliance with federal Section 508 access standards (36 C.F.R. 1194).
Although Kentucky's AIT law has been on the books for a number of years, anecdotal evidence suggested that few school systems were aware of its implications, and there was no evidence that any formal policies had been formulated to address compliance with this legislation. To help provide a framework to address this issue, the Kentucky Assistive Technology Service (KATS) Network, in collaboration with the Kentucky Department of Education's Division of Exceptional Children Services launched the AITIS (Accessible Information Technology in Schools) project to develop accessibility guidelines, checklists, and other technical assistance materials for helping school systems understand and fulfill their obligations under Kentucky's AIT law. These materials were developed with input from personnel at the school district level, assistive technology professionals, and representatives from disability consumer groups. Guidance and other forms of assistance were provided from national experts in the field through the participation of our primary project partner, the Southeast Disability Business Technical Assistance Center (SEDBTAC), as well as the National Center on Accessible Information Technology in Education (AccessIT) at the University of Washington, the National Center for Accessible Media at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting/WGBH, and Equal Access to Software and Information (EASI). Funding for the KY-AITIS Project is provided in part through a grant by the U.S. Dept. of Education (Grant #H133D010207).
The AITIS Project was initiated by the Kentucky Assistive Technology Service (KATS) Network on February 1, 2003, and the initial funding allocation ended on December 31, 2004. Additional funding for ongoing project development was approved effective April 1, 2005.
BACKGROUND OF THE KATS NETWORK
The KATS Network is the federally-funded Assistive Technology Act program for the state of Kentucky. KATS is a statewide network of organizations and individuals connecting to enhance the availability of assistive technology devices and services to improve the productivity and quality of life for individuals with disabilities. KATS engages in advocacy activities and capacity building efforts to help make assistive technology information, devices, and services easily obtainable for people of any age or disability.
The KATS Network is a Kentucky state agency affiliated with the Kentucky Office for the Blind, which is part of the Department for Workforce Investment within the state Education Cabinet. KATS is headquartered at the McDowell Center in Louisville and supports four regional resource centers and two satellite centers across the state. KATS initiatives are designed to work toward permanent systems change through responsive, comprehensive, statewide programs of technology-related assistance for individuals of all ages with disabilities.
KATS regularly works with other state agencies and educational entities on matters of accessibility and access to assistive technology. As such, the AITIS project is a natural extension of the KATS Network's regular collaborations with the Kentucky Department of Education and Kentucky school districts.
GAUGING THE PROBLEM
As a means of gauging the current level of information technology accessibility awareness and policy activity within Kentucky school systems, a survey was developed with input from the Kentucky AITIS Project National Advisory Panel. During the spring of 2004, District Technology Coordinators in each school system were asked to complete the online survey detailing their level of awareness on accessible IT issues, as well as documenting their district's level of compliance with Kentucky’s AIT law. A report entitled School District Information Technology Accessibility Survey Results was created in August of 2004 and was disseminated as a 17-page document that included the original survey instrument. This report is available at http://www.katsnet.org/aitis.html on the KATS Network website. Survey results showed that District Technology Coordinators were uninformed overall, and that school districts had done little to comply with Kentucky's accessibility requirements.
The following highlights of the report of survey findings help to demonstrate just how significant the lack of awareness and general compliance with accessibility requirements was among school districts:
- Concerning familiarity with federal Section 508 Accessibility Standards, 23.4% of respondents reported they had never "heard the term 'Section 508' used before."
- Concerning the use of accessibility checking software like "Bobby," 67.5% of respondents reported they had never "heard of" such software before.
- Concerning familiarity with Kentucky's AIT law, 30.3% of respondents reported they had "heard something about this law in the past," but "had never received any details about its requirements," while 26.3% of respondents reported they "don’t believe we have ever been told about this law before completing this survey."
- Concerning the development of web accessibility policies, 43.4% of respondents reported they "have not really considered the need of developing a district level web accessibility policy before completing this survey," while only 7.9% of respondents reported they "have a district level policy in place that addresses web accessibility requirements."
The final component of the policy section of this survey was an open-ended response that allowed school districts to elaborate on previous answers and include policy details, links to policies on district websites, and similar information. Only five districts provided such details. However, in such cases the policies cited were general software selection guidelines, which had no specific mention of accessibility. In other cases the district pointed to practice rather than policy, for instance stating that "special education teachers serve on school technology committees," or "we use the IEP to guide the implementation of accessibility." Such responses, when coupled with the results from the other questions in the policy section, seem to suggest that many District Technology Coordinators did not understand the concept of information technology accessibility in contrast to assistive technology accommodation. This concept paradigm--that accessibility is just about buying the right assistive technology product--continues to be an important barrier to overcome in continuing project success.
In order to address the fundamental lack of awareness, policy development, and accessibility implementation demonstrated by the survey results, the AITIS Project set out to create a number of resources designed to help schools get on the right track. Primary activities are outlined below:
- A special web area was created for the KY-AITIS project on the KATS Network website. This web area contains a description of the project, links to all of the technical assistance materials created for the project, and a number of other useful resources. The web area is viewable at the URL http://www.katsnet.org/aitis.html.
- One of the key policy development activities of the AITIS project was the creation of the School District Information Technology Accessibility Policy Matrix. The Policy Matrix was developed to provide school districts with guidelines for ensuring compliance with Kentucky state law. In a tabular matrix format, the Policy Matrix provides district personnel with citations for the applicable sections of both Kentucky state law and enforceable federal regulations, enumerated guidelines and policy language components, and a matching checklist for each guideline subject area. The Policy Matrix is available on the AITIS website in both HTML and RTF formats.
- An important technical assistance resource activity of the AITIS project was the creation of the School District Section 508 Technical Standards Checklists. The Technical Standards Checklists includes a corresponding checklist for each subsection of the federal Section 508 Accessibility Standards, and is modeled after a similar set of checklists created by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. These checklists are designed to aid school districts in selecting accessible electronic and information technology products that are covered under the federal Section 508 regulation. The Technical Standards Checklists can be obtained as a combined document in HTML format from the AITIS website.
- We were invited to give a presentation at the 2004 fall conference of the Kentucky Association of Technology Coordinators. This was a high-level conference with about 170-200 people in the audience, including Kentucky Department of Education directors and managers, school board members, district CIOs, procurement officials, and various other school administrators from across the state. There were also representatives from many of the major educational software vendors in attendance. Our session followed a speech by the Secretary of the Kentucky Education Cabinet, so the session was well attended. During our presentation we highlighted the work of the AITIS Project and the Policy Matrix and other materials we had created.
- As a training resource for Technology Resource Teachers, we created an "easy to digest" resource page of some of the most basic accessibility resources, such as how to test your website for accessibility and how to find accessibility information about software being considered for purchase. This document, the TRT Accessible Information Technology Resource Page is available on the AITIS website.
- We have been able to keep the Kentucky Department of Education regularly updated on the progress of the AITIS project by our representation on KDE's Office of Special Instructional Service Advisory Committee. This has helped to keep accessibility on the minds of key state education directors.
- We have provided ongoing technical assistance over the Kentucky District Technology Coordinators listserv, through which we were able to distribute at least 58 different focused emails on accessibility topics during the project period. These listserv emails have, in turn, spun off other email discussions with individual districts as they grapple with accessibility issues in their own schools.
Although getting the attention of Kentucky's 176 school districts--and getting them to make substantive changes toward accessibility--is a daunting task amid the many state requirements coupled with shrinking budgets over the last several years, the AITIS Project has made important progress. A few of the identifiable results to date include the following:
- Through impact on the director of the Kentucky Student Technology Leadership Program (STLP), we were able to promote accessibility within their student-created web design award program. The STLP encourages Kentucky K-12 students to actively create innovative technology projects with their school. Since STLP students across Kentucky set the standard and model for the rest of their schoolmates, this is an important inroad. For the 2004 competition, students who created web sites for submission had to ensure (for the first time) that their web pages were Section 508 compliant, or they could not move on to the next round of judging. This was a great educational experience for the students, as well as for the teachers who instructed them. Since all 176 school districts in the state have at least one school participating in this program, and in 122 districts all schools are involved, the long-term impact of this program can be great.
- The McCreary County Public Schools have included Section 508 accessibility compliance within their district technology goals as well as in their Guidelines for School Web Pages.
- The Fayette County Public Schools have implemented Section 508 accessibility standards on all new web content throughout their entire district. Since all 53 schools in the district have websites and approximately half of their nearly 2,600 teachers have classroom websites, this is a monumental task. A number of these websites have now been brought into compliance with Section 508, and the district is in the process of forming an advisory group to make recommendations for ensuring widespread and uniform compliance for the entire system.
- The Kenton County Public Schools have included information technology accessibility standards in their Instructional Technology Implementation Plan for 2004-2007, and are working to implement these standards throughout their district.
- The Jessamine County Public Schools are working to bring the district website into compliance with Section 508, and have scheduled local training to begin the process of updating individual school websites within the district. Policy is being developed to address accessibility in software purchasing and implementation at the local school district level that will be in place before the beginning of the 2005-06 school year. A web page referencing Internet sites reviewing accessible software and common software titles that meet accessible requirements is being developed for teachers to access as an aid in purchasing of this software. Training sessions are being developed over the summer of 2005 to assist teachers with making all IT products used accessible to all students in the classroom.
- The Pulaski County Schools are updating their District Technology Plan over the spring and summer of 2005. Section 508 compliance has been discussed as part of their planning process, and it was decided that a district Information Technology Accessibility policy will be included. They are also revamping their technology procurement practices to ensure that requests are reviewed for compliance with accessibility guidelines. The District also received a grant in January 2005 to create and/or update all district and school web pages, which will require Section 508 compliance. They have scheduled upcoming trainings for technology staff to include 508 compliance.
- Finally, the following additional school districts have reported that they have begun a process to repair their website content to comply with Section 508 requirements:
- Bowling Green Independent School District
- Boyd County School District
- Dayton County Schools
- Fairview Independent Schools
- Hazard Independent Schools
- Henderson County Schools
- Livingston County Schools
- Oldham County Schools
- Pendleton County Schools
- Scott County Schools
- Trimble County Schools
- Whitley County Schools
The AITIS Project has made important progress in helping Kentucky school districts make important changes toward accessibility, and has brought to the surface a number of important issues. A few of the most important lessons learned include the following:
- It is important to communicate directly with the head technology person assigned to a school district. In Kentucky, the District Technology Coordinator serves as the Chief Information Officer for the district, and is the key individual involved in district technology planning and purchasing, technology policy development, and monitoring. Although getting the word out about accessibility to the individual technology teachers in all schools--in Kentucky they are referred to as Technology Resource Teachers--is also important, enforceable district-wide policy must originate with the district office.
- It is essential to stress that accessibility is a technology issue, not just a special education or disability issue. Accessibility is almost always a new concept to technology staff. Many times information technology accessibility will be confused as a special education issue and ignored by technology personnel as something for the special education director to handle. However, the special education director typically has little understanding of IT issues, and no direct responsibility or authority for dealing with this issue.
- It is important to highlight that information technology accessibility is not an assistive technology issue. Many times both technology staff and special education staff alike will come to the inaccurate conclusion that information technology accessibility is merely a matter of purchasing the right assistive technology product after a student has been identified as unable to access the information technology through "standard" methods. To the contrary, the focus of information technology accessibility is on observing minimum technology specifications at all times, regardless if the district even has a student with a disability enrolled. Even spending tens of thousands of dollars on assistive technology for just one student after the fact will not fix inaccessible information technology. The creation of guiding policies and adherence to them, however, will help to ensure that inaccessible IT is not part of the school environment from the outset.
CONCLUSION AND NEXT STEPS
The KATS Network will continue to implement the AITIS Project to the extent that funding and staffing is available. Future plans include:
- A follow-up survey is planned for distribution in the spring of 2005. It is hoped that this follow-up survey will show a substantive increase in accessibility understanding and activity, largely as a result of the work of the AITIS project. It is encouraging to note that the Great Lakes ADA and Accessible IT Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago has also used our survey as a model for use in the state of Illinois.
- A web-based tutorial is planned to aid District Technology Coordinators and other district technology staff in understanding how to apply the policy matrix to their individual school district and thus help turn policy into practice.
- A "Promising Practices" extension of the current AITIS website is planned to highlight best practices in Kentucky schools, and provide a way to acknowledge those K-12 schools and districts that have done substantive work toward accessible IT.
- A number of live web-based as well as on-site training sessions are planned (contingent on funding) which will help District Technology Coordinators gain the knowledge and skills needed to help make their district's IT environments accessible.
As the AITIS Project moves forward, it is hoped that the success of this project will help to ensure that all educational components used in Kentucky schools are as inclusive and effective as possible, and as a result that each and every Kentucky student--including students with disabilities--has the opportunity to reach their full potential and achieve true proficiency.
Kentucky General Assembly. (2000). Kentucky Accessible Information Technology Act, Kentucky Revised Statutes, KRS 61.980 - 61.988. Retrieved April 7, 2005, from http://www.katsnet.org/ait-law.rtf