Disability Service Providers Misleading Publishers to Get Accessible Books?
Krista Greear, ED TECH 501
Summary of Professional Ethics
In the definition of Educational Technology, ethical practice is the second element. The placement of this element is inspired and the positioning demonstrates it’s importance in the profession. In the first chapter of Educational Technology: A Definition with Commentary, Januszewski (2008) explains that “ethics are not merely ‘rules and expectations’ but are a basis for practice” (p. 3). While the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) outlines specific commitments under three categories, it is impossible to outline answers to every possible ethical dilemma faced in the profession. Technology is changing at a rapid pace and the application of professional ethics is only going to increase. Looking to the past history of professional ethics in Educational Technology outlines a framework for future educational technologists to use.
As early as the late 1800s, ethics in education has been a concern. Georgia, California, Alabama and Arkansas were the first states to “adopt a code of ethics” (p. 290). Beginning in 1924, a committee from the National Education Association (NEA) began to develop a national code with the first adoption occurring in 1929 (Januszewski, 2008, p. 291). Over the years, the code was modified until 2001, where the current version of the AECT code was approved (p. 297). The code focuses on three ideas: commitment to the individual, commitment to society and commitment to the profession (p. 3). The specific commitments can be found at the AECT Website (Association for Educational Communications and Technology, n.d.a.). In summary, professional ethics accounts for three different perspectives of individual, society and profession to determine an appropriate and reasonable practice. Professional ethics is more than following a checklist created by educational technologists; it is a way of being.
Publishers Require New Textbook Before Distributing Alternate Version
In disability services, one accommodation is accessible instructional materials. This means that textbooks, course packs, articles and handouts need to be provided in a version other than the traditional, physical hardcopy. Most students that use this accommodation have a visual disability like blindness or low-vision, a learning disability like dyslexia or traumatic brain injury that affects their ability to read and comprehend text in the traditional format. Some examples of an alternate version could be Braille, large print or audio files. With the advances in technology, disability professionals can now provide an electronic file (like a PDF or word document) to a student needing accessible instructional materials. The student would then use a computer software or app to have the file read to them. This specific kind of tool is called text-to-speech technology.
The general process for a disability professional to obtain an accessible version of a textbook is to request an electronic copy directly from the publisher. Larger publishers are typically familiar with this request and have specific procedures in place. Namely, these procedures require that a formal request is made via email or electronic form. Most publishers like Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Cengage have a section on their forms that say something to the effect of “the disability service provider has verified that the student purchased a copy of the book”. Then these publishers provide the electronic version, if it is available.
What has been a growing trend the past year and a half is for publishers to require that a NEW version of the book be purchased by the student and that the student submits a copy of the receipt to the publisher when submitting the request. From the publisher’s perspective, this is a fair practice. It is perfectly within the publisher’s right to require that the student purchase a copy of the book before an accessible version is provided. However, this cavet of requiring that a new version must be purchased is problematic. Essentially, it is discriminatory in nature.
Disability accommodations are designed to level the playing field, not provide preferential treatment. Accommodations are to give a student who has a disability the same opportunity to fail or succeed, the same opportunity to participate equally in class and are helped to the same academic requirements. Anything that deviates from what would be reasonably equal between a student with a disability (SWD) and one without is discrimination and goes against the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. If the publisher requires that a student with a disability purchase a new version of the book to access the material, when other students without disabilities can buy a used copy of the book to access material, there is a distinct difference in practice. Why should a SWD have to spend more money on textbooks in order to obtain an alternate version when their peers are able to succeed with a used copy?
Professional Ethical Dilemma
This situation is complex as demonstrated that commitments from all 3 parts of the AECT Code of Professional Ethics do apply (Association for Educational Communications and Technology, n.d.a.). These commitments can be clearly identified within the context of a current common practice by disability service providers.
One common practice to work around the new textbook requirement by publishers is for the disability service provider to purchase a new copy of the textbook with the intent to return it once the alternate version has been received. The student would still provide proof-of-purchase but they are free to buy the new or used version. The publisher receives their request and ultimately, the student is provided with an accessible version. In parsing out the AECT Professional Ethics Code, commitments 1.2, 1.3, and 1.8 are met. The SWD received access to materials based on their point of view which is having a disability (1.2). The SWD can participate in the program (1.3) and the program encourages diversity through inclusion of students with disabilities (1.8). However, several other commitments are violated.
Within the remaining sections of the AECT, Commitment to Society and Commitment to the Profession are most heinously ignored. 2.1 and 2.2 are related to honesty in representing the greater entity and presenting truthful facts. Purposefully buying a receipt of a new book with the intent to return it is deceitful. The publisher entrusts that the school representative is following the school’s and publisher’s procedures to provide an accessible version. 3.8 and 3.9 are related to complying with laws. The Chafee Amendment is the closest piece of legislation related to this situation as states it is not a violation of copyright law to convert a book into an electronic, accessible format if the end recipient is a person with a disability (NLS Factsheet, n.d.a). But converting books is not the issues here — it is the professional ethics of (a) publishers requiring that students buy new versions of textbooks and (b) the consequences of disability service providers essentially lying to publishers just so their procedure can be followed in name only.
Many disability service professionals are at a loss. They are torn between professional ethics of working with publishers as well as the professional ethics of serving the student with a disability. Most err on the side of serving the student as not providing an accessible version could result in a legal action from Department of Justice, Department of Education and/or private legal action. Some comments about this issue are taken from a listserv called DHSSE-Listserv:
“But I think if you follow the instructions on the application it states that we will monitor that the student purchased ‘A’ book. Don’t volunteer information :-)”
“In my humble opionion, forcing SWD’s to purchase only new books as a criteria for getting an accommodation of text in alternative format is discriminatory. No other students must BUY new books–they can buy used or rent– so why must a SWD?”
“[The new or used version] ought not make a difference. I don’t distinguish between new or used when I’m requesting a book from the publisher. Its enough, in my opinion, that the book has been purchased.”
It seems that the overall response is that disability service professional are not comfortable requiring students to purchase new versions of textbooks. Thankfully, the proportion of publishers implementing this practice is currently small and mainly contained to law books. However, this practice is likely to spread to those publishers who are concerned about their revenue.
A far better, albeit, a more ambitious solution would be for publishers to provide accessible electronic versions that can be purchased directly, so all students would pay the same price for the electronic book. However, this does raise more complications as “electronic” does not automatically mean “accessible”. The knowledge of accessible documents is not yet widespread. Publishers, faculty, students and administrators simply do not know how to make an accessible electronic material that is useable by a user with a visual or learning disability or one who has traumatic brain injury. A colleague’s simple statement seems to have the potential to avoid this ethical dilemma in the future “And my answer to that would be if publishers are so concern about making money then they need to start making all of their books accessible and available for purchase” (DHSSE-Listserv, 2014). By providing everyone with access to a book that is useable by all, for the same price, seems to remove many of the violations previously outlined. It would not matter if students purchased the used or new version. Disability service providers would not be misleading in the process with the publishers and publishers would not have to worry about the differences in revenue based on if the new or used version was purchased.
A quote from a famous hymn describes my feelings about this assignment: “I was blind but now I see”. I had always know that this was a real problem in the industry but had not taken time to delineate why a current practice would be professionally unethical. I better understand both positions and why each side (disability service profesional and publishers) has accepted the various practices they do. The wonderful news is that I do see a solution. Granted, this will take several years if not decades, dozens of lawsuits if not more and ultimately, legislation created to make accessible textbooks a way of being in the field of Educational Technology. I feel more responsible to do my part to adhere to the AECT Code of Ethics. Perhaps taking more time to explain to publisher why their current procedures may be inappropriate to students with disabilities could be one way to work together, as disability service professional and publisher, towards a universally accessible solution. For the most part, most publishers have been wonderful to work with and truly seek to make their products workable for all. As Januszewski stated clearly in Educational Technology: A Definition with Commentary, “the current definition [of educational technology] considers ethical practice as essential to our professional success, for without the ethical considerations being addressed, success is not possible” (Januszewski, 2008, pg. 2).
Association for Educational Communications and Technology. (n.d.a). A code of professional ethics. Retrieved September 13, 2014, from http://aect.site-ym.com/members/group_content_view.asp?group=91131&id=309963
Januszewski, A. (2008). Professional Ethics and Educational Technology. In Educational technology: A definition with commentary (p. 306). New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
NLS Factsheet (n.d.a). Copyright Law Amendment, 1996: PL 104-197. Retrieved September 13, 2014, from http://www.loc.gov/nls/reference/factsheets/copyright.html