California's Pioneering Accessibility Legislation, Twenty Years Later. What’s Next?

On Monday, September 16th, 2019, the Consumer Accessibility Information Label Association (CAILA) hosted an event in Sacramento to mark the 20th anniversary of AB422, which was pioneering legislation by the state of California that required textbook publishers to give electronic files to state colleges and universities so they could provide better accommodations to students with print-related disabilities. The purpose of the event was to show how far we have come and how far we still have to go to ensure students with disabilities have equal access to education.

I started off the meeting talking about the impact of AB422. In one respect it has been very successful. The legislation put publishers on notice that disability service providers in the three post-secondary systems in California knew digital files were being used to produce textbooks, and those files were needed by students who had disabilities that kept them from using printed textbooks.

The California Community College system opened the Alternate Text Production Center (ATPC) in 2002 to consolidate publisher file requests from the over 100 campuses in the system, and the ATPC became the model for the national AccessText Network (ATN), which was started by the Association of American Publishers in 2009. I said publishers have distributed hundreds of thousands of files at no cost in the last twenty years, which they would rather not have to do, so why aren’t we closer to having fully accessible textbooks available on the open market?

Promising to get back to that question after the three speakers had their say, I introduced Joshua Hori, Assistive Technology Analyst at the University of California, Davis. Joshua spoke eloquently about the variety of apps and programs that are available to help students adjust their materials to their needs, such as changing fonts, colors, and voices used in text-to-speech. He noted that these programs rely on the text being unencrypted, but some publishers have been pushing him to send students to proprietary platforms rather than providing the unlocked files.

Sheri Byrne-Haber, Head of Accessibility at VMware, gave a great talk on issues and opportunities related to employment for people with disabilities. Sheri mentioned that despite working in a “billion dollar” office park in Silicon Valley, many accessibility challenges remained in her own job. Sheri talked about the importance of recruiting and retaining people with disabilities, and how students with disabilities could be better empowered in the workplace if they could utilize the assistive technologies that they had adapted to suit their individual needs (“Bring Your Own Device” - BYOD). She also talked about the inadequacies of “accessibility overlays” that try to make up for websites that are not designed with accessibility in mind from the start.

Georgina Kleege, professor at UC Berkeley and author of several books, including one of my favorites, Sight Unseen, started off by saying how nice it was she could download an accessible version of a new novel (The Testaments by Margaret Atwood) from Bookshare the same day it was published in print. While that is a significant improvement over that past, she went on to discuss some things that had not changed much, including the challenges of using a course-management system that was not very accessible to instructors with disabilities. She finished by talking about her ongoing campaign to make cultural spaces such as museums fully accessible, and how that meant disability and access being part of the curation process from the start, not something only considered after an exhibit was designed.

I wrapped it up by talking about what I think is the untold story – that even though technology has been available to make textbooks more and more accessible, students with disabilities are still facing many of the challenges and barriers that they were twenty years ago. AB422, for all its promise, did not succeed in pushing publishers hard enough to make their products fully accessible. My belief is that accessibility advocates focused on other things rather than building bridges with publishers, and now the disability divide is still very much evident in education at all levels.

One simple but significant step towards giving accessibility the recognition and representation it deserves is to require publishers and distributors of educational materials to label their products with accessibility information so that students with disabilities know what they are getting. During the meeting I proposed that California follow up AB422 with a bill to do just that. I’m calling it the College Accessibility Information Labeling Act and will be organizing a campaign to have it introduced during next year’s legislative session. California’s Governor Gavin Newsom has spoken about his own experience with dyslexia, which should aid his understanding of how important this issue is.

I’d like to thank the attendees, the presenters, the ASL interpreters from A Show Of Hands, High Spirits Event Planning, Asante Catering, and the staff of the Sacramento Library Galleria for making this event flow so enjoyably and smoothly (and thanks to the Capitol Corridor train for not being later than it was ;-)

A picture of Georgina Kleege, Robert Martinengo, Joshua Hori, and Sheri Byrne-Haber sitting and chatting in a meeting room.

A picture of Georgina Kleege, Robert Martinengo, Joshua Hori, and Sheri Byrne-Haber sitting and chatting in a meeting room.