This article was written by Ellen Ullman on October 17, 2023 and published by The Educating All Learners Alliance.
Pictured above, from left: Crystal Patrick, Michelle Soriano, Chris Smith (NC Virtual Public School), Cynthia Curry, & Donna Murray at the K12 Digital Accessibility Bootcamp in South Carolina
For students with disabilities, the right technology can be life changing. Whether that means being able to enlarge or invert text to see it more clearly, use a voice-to-type app to create content, or play an accessible game with a friend, accessible technology allows students with disabilities to participate more fully in school and beyond.
For the last 15 years, the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials (AEM Center), has promoted accessible technology by helping states and districts provide and support the use of high-quality AEM and accessible technologies for all learners. “When states and districts include accessibility standards and considerations across all aspects of the system, they’re demonstrating a commitment to learner variability. Providing accessible materials and technology from the beginning means that the widest range of learner needs and preferences will inherently be met without the need for delays or disruption caused by retrofitting,” says Cynthia Curry, director of technical assistance at CAST, the non-profit organization that operates the AEM Center.
To increase awareness, access, and usage of accessible materials, the AEM Center provides webinars, videos, policy briefs, and other resources for educators, administrators, and families. The Center is also working with a cohort of seven U.S. states that received four years of technical assistance to develop scalable systems for providing accessible materials and technologies for all learners. For the AEM team in North Carolina, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.
“My 18-year-old daughter has special needs, so I am passionate about assistive technology and accessibility,” says Donna Murray, director of digital teaching & learning and a digital access consultant for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI). “Each state in the cohort approaches with a different lens, but we wanted to create a comprehensive system around AEM.”
Building the Right Team Is Paramount
Murray and Crystal Patrick, a visual impairment and AEM consultant for NCDPI, knew they’d need a wide-ranging group with different backgrounds, experience, and skillsets—ideally, “yes, and…” type of people who had worked in accessibility. “We recruited from ‘twinkles to wrinkles,’” says Murray, “including people in early learning, K-12, workforce development, higher education, and the state department.”
A full-scale, wide-ranging undertaking is tricky to plan and trickier to implement, so the NC AEM leadership team prioritized the areas that would have the largest impact. The team took a deep dive into CAST’s seven quality indicators for providing AEM—a coordinated system, timely manner, written guidelines, learning opportunities, data collection, data use, and allocation of resources—so they’d be able to develop their own system and, in the process, support districts in doing the same.
They developed a four-year plan to train state and local agency teams how to purchase, create, and select accessible materials and accessible formats for students who need them.
To train people all over North Carolina, Murray and Patrick collected data and used it to help drive professional development (PD) and technical assistance. They participated in professional development sessions, including a 2022 statewide summer tour in which they taught educators how to develop and procure accessible educational materials and what constitutes true accessibility. “These are great opportunities for us to find champions,” says Murray. The next step is to ask the champions to be part of a community of practice, deliver PD at conferences and institutes, and plan area meetups in each region.
For anywhere-anytime professional learning, Patrick and Murray started a website of accessibility resources and a way for teachers to request materials. They repurposed their PD sessions into a journal article for other states to use for their own professional learning. Several North Carolina schools are using the material this year. Chris Smith, Ed.D., an instructional designer for North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS) and a member of the NC AEM leadership team, is transforming the PD sessions into a synchronous Canvas course open to the whole state. This fall, they rolled out AEM in the IEP based on the AEM Center’s published guidance. While digital accessibility from the beginning is the goal, students with disabilities who need AEM should have this documented in their IEPs.
Having a Yes, And… Mindset
Patrick and Murray have learned to be flexible and open to anything. A project manager in the CIO’s office heard about their accessibility work and asked Murray and Patrick to address it in a statewide procurement context. They did not feel like they were ready to dig into procurement since they had not yet built a culture of accessibility, but one of their team members was willing to address it and it turned into a huge win, says Murray. “We’ve been able to modify processes and language in state-level RFPs, which is a tremendous shift,” she says. “We’re having conversations during the procurement process and articulating in contracts that we expect vendors to partner with us and prioritize their project plan if they need to retrofit for accessibility.”
The AEM Center appreciates North Carolina’s determination. “Each state in the cohort determines what it can achieve to make sure kids have accessible technology and materials,” says Michelle Soriano, a technical assistance specialist for the AEM Center. “North Carolina excels at sharing what they learn and spreading awareness of AEM and accessible technology.”
“What’s unique about our North Carolina AEM team, and what makes them so effective, is the authenticity of their cross-disciplinary partnership at the top,” adds the AEM Center’s Curry. “With Donna’s expertise on the EdTech side of the system and Crystal’s on AT and special education, combined with their ability to engage wider leadership at NCDPI, effective systems change has been emerging.”
Going Beyond Compliance
The next phase of the plan involves helping people learn how to vet products for accessibility, but this requires a technical knowledge base and skill set. At a minimum, you need to know which accessibility standards are pertinent to various types of solutions and how to write RFPs that addresses those issues.
The team is also helping everyone understand that accessibility is not only for exceptional children. Because students with disabilities spend most of their time in general ed classrooms, accessibility needs to be a general ed conversation. As Murray says, “Accessibility is essential for some and useful for all.”
Murray and Patrick are expanding accessibility guidelines for districts to move beyond a focus on visual impairment. To continue to build capacity, they need to develop a repository of resources that touch as many people as possible.
How to Expand Accessibility Awareness
North Carolina is part of a four-year cohort of states working with the National AEM Center to develop a coordinated system for providing AEM and accessible technologies across the continuum of education services in its state. Here are four lessons North Carolina’s AEM leadership team has learned during the past three years.
- Go slow to go fast. Take the time to understand the local landscape regarding accessible educational materials while you look at the issue globally. Break down the walls one at a time.
- Build the right team. For North Carolina, this meant inviting people who had already worked with accessible educational materials in some way.
- Jump on possibilities, even if they weren’t intentional. “We can be deep in the weeds in one direction and an opportunity will arise that has potential to affect change; when that happens, jump on it,” says Donna Murray, director of digital teaching & learning and a digital access consultant for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI).
- Be agile. Even though the NC team has a four-year plan with goals, steps, and resources, if they aren’t getting traction in one of the areas, they adjust their thinking and processing.