Software Accessibility Suit

The U.S. Department of Justice seeks to join a blind student's discrimination lawsuit against Miami University in Ohio. The university denies the allegations.

May 14, 2015

The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking to join a blind student’s lawsuit against Miami University in Ohio, saying the institution’s website and licensed software from vendors such as from Turnitin and Pearson are inaccessible to students with disabilities.

Aleeha Dudley, who is blind, sued the university and its president in January 2014, alleging it violated Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. The law requires state entities such as public universities to provide equal access to students with disabilities.

Dudley enrolled at the university in 2011 to study zoology, but says her grades suffered because of “Miami’s selection of software programs that gratuitously exclude[d]” her from equal access to accessible course materials, according to the complaint. Examples include digitized textbooks described as “nearly useless and vastly inferior to the printed text,” software not designed to be used with screen readers, and “unusable” tactile graphics.

The department launched an investigation of the university in April 2014. Its findings, released that June, suggested the university had violated the ADA. The department has since attempted to resolve the case, but on Tuesday moved to intervene.

The department will sometimes file a statement of interest in a case, explaining a specific matter without taking a formal position. If the department’s motion to intervene is granted, however, it would join Dudley in suing the university. The case is filed in a federal district court in Ohio.

“We are pleased that the DOJ is taking this case and the issues that it presents so seriously,” said Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind. The organization is assisting Dudley in the case.

The university in a statement said it “continues to deny the allegations. We take our obligations under the American Disabilities Act very seriously. Miami provides extensive resources and accommodations for our disabled students, and will continue to do so.”

Miami is the latest university to draw scrutiny from the federal government over its use of technology in the classroom. In 2013, the department reached a settlement with Louisiana Tech University over an issue that also involved students with vision impairments. Last month, the department settled a case with massive open online course provider edX, which committed to making its platform accessible to users with disabilities.

While the list of colleges and universities finding themselves in legal trouble over accessibility issues continues to grow, advocates for students with disabilities said they continue to wonder how many examples are needed before it becomes a high-priority issue in higher education.

“The macro problem here that we’re currently having to address, sort of university by university, is that the technology and content providers are not doing what they need to do to make their stuff accessible,” Danielsen said. “Currently the only mechanism that we have to address this is to go after the colleges and universities, because they are the ones with the buying power. They are the ones that can say, if they will, to a provider that we will not purchase, we will not deploy your product if it’s not accessible.”

The organization is working with institutions and vendors to determine which regulations both sides can agree on, Danielsen said.

The ADA covers colleges and universities, but not their software vendors, said Daniel F. Goldstein, a lawyer who specializes in disability rights law. He pointed out that institutions can influence the market by requiring companies that respond to requests for proposals to detail how they will make their software accessible to students with disabilities.

“Accessibility becomes a competitive edge once there’s a tipping point of enough schools saying, 'excuse me, but is your software accessible?’” Goldstein, who also serves as counsel for the National Federation of the Blind, said. “To get this fixed, it’s going to need college and university presidents saying this matters.”

The department’s proposed complaint lists a number of vendors whose software it found to be inaccessible. In addition to the university’s website, video platforms Vimeo and YouTube, and word processor Google Docs, the complaint also lists course work management software from LearnSmart, Pearson, Sapling, Turnitin, Vista Higher Learning and WebAssign. The companies have contracts with many colleges and universities, so it is unlikely that Miami is using products not broadly found in higher education.

The companies did not respond or were unable to respond to requests for comment Wednesday evening.


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