Win for Disabled Students

Berkeley agrees to make it easier for students with disabilities to do homework and research in a settlement that may be eyed across the country by advocates and university officials alike.

May 9, 2013
College students with disabilities across the United States are likely to benefit from a settlement signed this week by the University of California at Berkeley. The university will do more to make homework and research material accessible to students with visual and learning disabilities, an effort that may provide a model for disability rights advocates and university officials elsewhere.
Berkeley, an early battleground in the disability rights movement five decades ago, agreed to the steps following complaints by a disability rights group on behalf of three students with print disabilities. Such disabilities include blindness, paralysis that makes turning pages impossible and mental disabilities, like dyslexia, that require special software to help students do their work.

The 18-page out-of-court settlement with Disability Rights Advocates now binds Berkeley to make library materials accessible and to increase the staff and turnaround time within its disabled students program, which has been overwhelmed with requests for reading material in alternative formats. 

Because the policy was negotiated and settled out of court, the Berkeley agreement does not set a binding legal standard for anyone else. Nonetheless, people who work with students with disabilities called the Berkeley policy, which takes effect this fall, a significant development.

“It’s very well-written and the issues that it identifies have been thematically recurrent issues at a lot of universities and through lower-level complaints through the Office for Civil Rights out of the Department of Education – so, as a model, it is significant and people should pay attention to it,” said L. Scott Lissner, president of the national Association on Higher Education and Disability and ADA coordinator at Ohio State University.

Lissner said one important element of the agreement puts professors on the hook for failing to make required reading known well in advance of the start of class, a time period that students with disabilities may need so they can get materials in the proper format. Berkeley agreed that professors who knowingly and without good cause fail to submit textbook adoptions seven weeks before the start of class can be punished by university administrators.

In recent years, universities across the country have faced complaints by print-disabled individuals over the use of inaccessible products and services. The outcomes of the cases have usually been in favor of the people lodging the complaint, according to the Association of Research Libraries

The Berkeley settlement is the product of about a year of good-faith negotiations between the university and three students represented by Disability Rights Advocates, which is based in the city of Berkeley.

The students complained about Berkeley’s disability services operations in 2011, said Rebecca Williford, a lawyer for the advocacy group. Two of the students -- Brandon King  and Tabitha A. Mancini -- needed material in electronic format for a screen reader because they had learning disabilities, she said. The third, David Jaulus, has a visual disability, is in a wheelchair and needed materials in large print electronic format because he has trouble turning pages, she said.

Williford said Berkeley had not been doing enough to convert traditional reading materials into alternative media accessible to disabled students. Some students waited months for the university to produce material in a format they could use and ended up relying on parents to read assignments to them so they could try to keep up in class, she said.

“There’s got to be baseline of access provided so they can literally do their homework,” Williford said.

As part of the negotiations, the university and the advocacy group hosted student forums and also studied specific accessibility issues.

The settlement comes amid a national increase in the number of disabled students attending college. In 2008, about 11 percent of the nation’s college students had a disability, according to the Government Accountability Office. More than 1 in 10 of those had dyslexia or a visual impairment.

Berkeley has experienced a 115 percent increase in demand for alternative media in the past four years, said Paul Hippolitus, director of the university’s Disabled Students’ Program.

The settlement affects two main parts of the Berkeley campus – the program for disabled students and the university’s system of a dozen on-campus libraries – and will cost tens of thousands of dollars in both one-time and recurring costs.

At Berkeley, about 70 students requested alternative media this semester from the Disabled Students’ Program. To help them, the university translated about 750 textbooks or course readers into digital formats that can be used by screen readers that do text-to-speech or to produce braille or large on-screen print. Students at Berkeley use 18 different technologies or software programs to access text, Hippolitus said.

His office doesn’t just turn printed text into digital text but also has to find ways to translate illustrations in textbooks into depictions that can be understood by touch rather than by sight. This has to happen in highly specialized fields, including astrophysics and microbiology. A year ago, the program had only one staff member. 

“You can understand how the system was melting under the burden of it all,” Hippolitus said. “The settlement agreement gave us a chance to attend to that issue.”

He hired two new staffers in recent months. Following the settlement, he will be hiring two new employees at $60,000 each to bring the size of his staff to five by fall.

The other part of the settlement affects the university’s library system, which needs to be able to make printed material accessible to students across the campus. Some material is already digitized by Google or published as an e-book to begin with – but so much is not, said Elizabeth Dupuis, an associate university librarian. The library, which is under a hiring freeze, shifted two staffers to work on disability issues and bought a $20,000 scanner to help convert printed text to digital text.

The need to access older and obscure material is especially great at Berkeley, which requires research projects in many of its classes.

“For those sorts of topics, that means ideally your possibilities are endless to what you might be interested in, but for students with print disabilities all that print material on the shelf was basically not accessible to them,” Dupuis said.

That material was therefore off-limits in “arbitrary ways” because books were not available in electronic format, either from publishers or from other libraries that scan materials into accessible formats. Now, the library is expected to convert books into accessible texts within days of a student's request for the material. 

“We want to encourage you to be intellectually curious, we want to be able to encourage you to discover new things,” Dupuis said.


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