Department of Education First in the World Award to Research Print-Related Disabilities
By: Christopher M. Lee, LDA Adult Topics Committee Member

LDA Today 10-4-2015

Once the only choice for minority students in a time of limited access to majority institutions, Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) — specifically, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), and Asian American, Native American and Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs) — were defined in various pieces of legislation to serve those underserved populations. They continue to play important roles in providing access and support even in this era of broadened access.

MSIs are unique both in their missions and in their day-to-day operations. Some of these colleges and universities are located in remote regions of the country, whereas others serve urban neighborhoods. Through Presidential Executive Orders and special legislation enacted over the past 20 years, minority-serving institutions have accessed Department of Education funds and leveraged other Departmental resources on behalf of their students and communities. In 2014, the Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) funded 24 First in the World (FITW) awards. These FITW four-year grants were to highlight innovation products, services and research. In addition to the $75 million that was allocated for FITW grantees, $20 million was set aside for awards that could demonstrate that the grant plan could benefit MSIs globally.

One of the awardees was The Georgia Institute of Technology | AMAC Accessibility Solutions and Research Center. AMAC Accessibility proposed the creation of the Center for Accessible Materials Innovation (the Center) to expand access to higher education digital course content for students with disabilities, thereby supporting the improvement of their retention and graduation rates.

The Population

Students with disabilities are a significant, underrepresented segment of the higher education population that cuts across age, gender, ethnic, racial, cultural and economic boundaries. They comprise 11 percent of the total undergraduate student population (NCES, 2012). Only 34.8 percent of students with disabilities at four-year institutions will complete college, compared to 51.2 percent of the general student population (Newman, et al., 2011). Minority students (other than Asians) and low-income students are more likely to have a disability than other groups (Wolanin & Steele, 2004). Building a Grad Nation (America’s Promise Alliance, 2014) notes that it is statistically impossible to achieve the goal of 90 percent high school graduation rates without nationwide gains in the completion rates of students with disabilities.

The Question

Can America become First in the World in higher education completion without making accessible textbooks available and affordable to all students with disabilities?

The Challenges

The increasing population of post-secondary students with a variety of cognitive, sensory and physical disabilities necessitates the availability of textbooks and other instructional materials in alternative formats, whether digital, audio, or electronic braille specialized media files. The timely availability of “accessible” textbooks and instructional materials is a significant key to increased access to and success in higher education for students with disabilities. Limited, incomplete or delayed access to accessible textbooks remains a systemic barrier for students with disabilities despite enabling legislation and policy changes to ensure equal availability.

In addition to the challenges facing all students with disabilities, unpublished data from the AccessText Network (ATN) analyzed on June 13, 2014, suggests that the availability of accessible textbooks may be an even more significant barrier for “dual identity” students – minority students with disabilities. ATN, supported by the Association of American Publishers, whose members make up over 92 percent of the postsecondary United States textbook market, provides electronic files to members. Of the 641 schools identified as minority-serving institutions (MSIs) (Cunningham, 2014), only 91 are members of the free ATN service. Disturbingly, data indicate that more than 80 percent of the nation’s MSIs have never used the AccessText Network to acquire digital textbooks. This fact leaves open the question of whether and how the students acquire accessible textbooks.

Students of color with disabilities often experience racial discrimination as well as the stigmatizing effects of living with a disability. These multiple identities may impact access, use, awareness and perceptions of services. Minority students have shown reluctance to request accommodations for fear of invoking stigma (Denhart, 2008). This may be particularly true at smaller institutions where students may not have access to a community of students living with disabilities.

The Innovative Strategies

The Center for Accessible Materials Innovation (the Center) addresses the identified issues with an over-arching goal of expanding the availability and use of fully accessible textbooks for all students with disabilities, and for students at MSIs in particular, through four objectives: (1) to develop applications to pioneer an innovative marketplace mechanism (a digital label) for the disclosure of standardized consumer information about the accessibility features of digital textbooks; (2) to provide textbook remediation services to increase the immediate availability of frequently used titles, especially those requested by students, and to use the tools created for Objective 1 to check accessibility and add to the pilot database of digital accessibility labels; (3) to research the causes of the seeming under-utilization of accessible textbooks by MSIs and to reverse this pattern with education and services; and (4) to provide professional education and training on accessible electronic information for college faculty and staff including DSPs, administrators, content developers, curriculum procurement officials, and information technology managers.

To learn more about this important project, visit

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