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New Illinois law provides access to online educational resources for students with disabilities

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Students had to adapt to virtual learning over the past year, but it wasn’t easy for everyone. Some with disabilities and individualized education plans struggled with coursework online. Illinois now has a law to help change that.

This law requires school boards to comply with web accessibility guidelines when they contract with third-party vendors for virtual learning.

About 18% of Illinois students have a disability, developmental delay, or an IEP. Gov. JB Pritzker and sponsors say the law can help more schools become ADA compliant and equitably serve all students. They feel schools should never leave students behind because of a disability.

The new law is special for Tom Loftus, an Assistant State’s Attorney who helps people with disabilities in Cook County. Loftus also struggles with visual impairment and constantly helps others with similar challenges.

“There is a group of people out there that can’t even get the information to move themselves forward,” said Loftus. “How do you get someone that can’t see interested in learning if everything is a struggle?”

Loftus said 70% of the visually impaired stay unemployed or underemployed because of this problem with education.

Helping every student succeed

The web content accessibility guidelines cover accommodations for auditory, cognitive, physical, and speech impairments. Some of the features include text to speech, video captions, and alternatives for the color blind.

“When we center our work around those who have been historically marginalized or those who have had limited access, and now they’re able to gain that access by designing our curriculum, by designing the access points with them starting first, everyone wins,” said Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas (D-Chicago).

Pritzker says he’s proud Illinois continues to pave the way for an education system that meets the challenges of the 21st century.

“This new law makes Illinois a national leader in protecting students with disabilities from being left behind by digital learning platforms,” said Pritzker. “By next August, every public and private K-12 school in Illinois must ensure that online curriculum meets the leading standard for web content accessibility so that all students can use the tools that bring the whole world into their classrooms.”

Rep. Theresa Mah (D-Chicago) said it was heartening to know that companies like Newsela already met the standard for accessible curriculum. But, in this case, she felt it made sense to make sure all Illinois schools met that standard.

An issue magnified during the pandemic

“To me, this is the core of the work that we do, enacting policy changes that improve people’s lives,” said Mah. “I’m especially proud to have been involved with this legislation because it brings together a number of issues that I care deeply about – access to education as well as equity for people with disabilities.”

Tyler Overstreet is a former high school government teacher who works at Newsela. He explained the educational vendor focuses on accessible and equitable resources for students and teachers. Overstreet said roughly 13% of students across the country receive services for disabilities.

“That’s hundreds of thousands of students every day that could be going to school and accessing digital resources that they can’t actually access,” said Overstreet. “With this issue, it’s been under a magnifying glass over the past two years with the pandemic and a push to remote learning. We know that districts are actively looking to solve issues around WiFi and just providing students with devices. But we know the challenges with devices don’t stop there.”

Overstreet also said his company ensures content is accessible for the over 1 million students using the platform.

The proposal passed out of both chambers unanimously this spring. The law takes effect on August 1, shortly before the start of the next school year.

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Mike Miletich

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