Recently, the Department of Education (Department) entered into an Agreement with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) that outlines steps that will be taken to help improve the accessibility of the various documents issued under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (Direct Loan) Program to individuals with visual impairments. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Department may not discriminate against individuals with disabilities in federally conducted programs. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires the Department to make its electronic and information technology generally accessible to people with disabilities. The Agreement outlines the steps it will take in a specific plan of action that the Department will implement over the next three years to help meet its Section 504 and 508 obligations to Direct Loan borrowers with visual impairments.
The following are key steps in its plan of action that the Department, working with its loan servicers, will implement:
- providing accessible student loan forms, statements, and publications in both electronic and hard copy formats;
- enabling borrowers with visual impairments to complete and file certain student loan-related forms independently;
- making all websites that are used by student loan borrowers compliant with the WCAG2.0 AA standards;
- monitoring by the Department of implementation of the Agreement; and
- providing borrowers with a process for filing informal complaints about matters related to the Agreement.
Implementation of these elements, as well as other specific actions delineated in the Agreement, will provide individuals with visual impairments an opportunity both to access information about the Direct Loan program and their own student loan accounts, as well as enable them to conduct transactions independently.
The Department will also, as provided for in the Agreement, conduct outreach to visually impaired borrowers to provide information about, and solicit input concerning, the accessibility of its websites and those of its servicers, the procedures for requesting alternative formats for student loan-related materials, and the procedures for reporting problems with accessibility.
Making our student loan process more accessible is important. The Department entered into this Agreement because ensuring that individuals with disabilities have a full and fair opportunity to participate in Federally-conducted activities is the right thing to do. Access to higher education is important not only to an individual’s career and life opportunities, but also to ensuring that our nation has the high-skilled workforce needed to compete in an increasingly competitive global market place. The Direct Loan program plays a key role in providing millions of Americans with an opportunity to obtain a postsecondary education. For that reason, all those who want to pursue higher education, including individuals with visual impairments, should have access to the Direct Loan program. The Department, therefore, is committed to implementing the Agreement in an effective and transparent manner.