(TNS) — U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, on Thursday reintroduced a bipartisan bill aimed at making sure students with disabilities have access to the same educational materials as non-disabled students.
This is the second time the legislators introduced the Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education Act, or the AIM HIGH Act.
Asked why the bill didn't move forward the first time, in the 115th Congress, Courtney said it was introduced late in the session while Roe chalked it up to a busy legislative agenda with "only so many days on the calendar."
The AIM HIGH Act would create an independent, 19-member commission to develop voluntary guidelines for accessibility of "electronic instructional materials and related technologies" used in higher education. This could help people who are sight- and hearing-impaired, for example.
The commission would include people with disabilities, higher education administrators, and developers and manufacturers of instructional materials.
The bill does not require any government spending, and since the guidelines are voluntary, the legislation doesn't involve any incentives or penalties.
"Right now, with the developments in technology, there really are some exciting opportunities to really open the doors of higher education for folks that didn't exist, even as recently as 10 years ago," Courtney said.
He added that while this will help people overcome obstacles, it's "not just a feel-good bill" but one that will address workforce needs in the United States, given low unemployment and the number of job openings throughout the country. He thinks employers are realizing they must cast a wider net.
Beyond helping students with disabilities get better access to higher education, Courtney sees this bill as one that would spur innovation of technologies that would help these students.
Courtney noted that others in Congress are approaching issues of educational accessibility from a mandatory standpoint, but he's less confident that will make it through the legislative process, so this bill is an alternative. He sees he and Roe's bill as the most feasible.
One change from last year's bill was the removal of safe harbor protections, meaning that schools providing materials that conform to the voluntary guidelines would qualify for safe harbor from liability in relation to obligations under certain other laws.
Courtney said this provision "picked up some static" last year, and he's looking for a version of the bill that's "the most inclusive, from a political standpoint."
Roe said the initial thinking behind the provision was, "We wanted to hold this carrot out there, to say, 'If you follow all these guidelines that are going to be placed, then you'll be protected,'" but he said he compromised this time.
"Joe is great to work with, and he has been really A+ on this," Roe said of Courtney.
The two have gotten support for this legislation from the National Federation of the Blind, Software & Information Industry Association, Association of American Publishers, EDUCAUSE and the American Council on Education.
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