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ADA Lawsuit Prompts Institutional Change, Draws More Students

Atlantic Cape Community College reformed its accessibility practices after a disability discrimination lawsuit. Now students with disabilities are enrolling in record numbers.

May 22, 2019
 
Atlantic Cape Community College

Atlantic Cape Community College administrators were shocked when the college was sued for discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act. They thought the college was doing a pretty good job providing accommodations for students with disabilities, given staff and budget constraints.

Two blind students at the college felt otherwise, however, and, backed by the National Federation of the Blind, filed a lawsuit in 2015 claiming Atlantic Cape violated the ADA.

One of the students, Anthony Lanzilotti, said in court documents that he failed several courses because the course materials were not provided in an accessible format. The other student, Mitchell Cossaboon, objected to an institutional policy requiring visually impaired students to be accompanied at all times by a sighted aide.

Atlantic Cape agreed to settle the case, entering into a consent decree that required the college to conduct a full audit of its technology and develop a plan to make all student-facing materials accessible to blind students. The consent decree also required ADA training for all faculty, among other conditions.

The college has since taken steps not only to become ADA compliant but to make accessibility part of its institutional culture. Though the college still has work to do, it has started to build a reputation as an institution that supports students with disabilities -- so much so that their numbers at the college are rising.

At the time of the consent decree in 2015, Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, commended the college on its “willingness to engage in a comprehensive program to ensure that all of its students, including the blind, receive a truly equal education.”

Riccobono said it was “especially significant” that the college agreed to make all of its technology accessible within three years. The college has since received an extension on the consent decree.

Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum, managing partner at the law firm Brown Goldstein Levy, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, said it’s typical for such lawsuits to be settled with a consent decree. The advantage of a consent decree over a private settlement is that the court retains jurisdiction -- it’s a “stronger way to ensure compliance,” she said.

Though Atlantic Cape has made good progress toward full accessibility, Krevor-Weisbaum notes that it has taken time for the college to find the right strategy. The three-year consent decree was extended in late 2018 for another three years.

“They have certainly shown they are making this consent decree high priority, and we’re very pleased about that,” she said. “It took a while for them to get the right people in place to make the change that they needed to make, but they are doing that now.”

Michael Barnes, director of the Center for Accessibility at Atlantic Cape, said the college has made a lot of progress since 2016 toward integrating accessibility into the culture of the institution.

“Lawsuits are painful -- I don’t want to sugarcoat that at all,” said Barnes. But the impact on Atlantic Cape has been positive, he said.

“It made us look at ourselves, our processes. It made us really evaluate how we work with students and think about how to be a better, more inclusive, institution.”

One of the first actions the college took was to change the name of the Office of Disability Support Services to the Center for Accessibility, said Barnes. The college signed a $274,000 contract with accessibility consultants Interactive Accessibility Inc. in 2016 to perform a technology audit, report accessibility outcomes and help provide accessibility training to faculty and staff, as required by the consent decree.

“We rebuilt all of the policy and procedures from the top down,” said Barnes. It was important that the Board of Trustees, the president and the deans were all on board, he said.

“We wanted to make accessibility part of the culture of the institution," he said. "We didn’t want to be thinking about accessibility just for the sake of compliance.”

Rather than retroactively fixing inaccessible content created by instructors or provided by third parties, Atlantic Cape focused on encouraging the creation and procurement of accessible content, said Barnes. As part of this effort, the Center for Accessibility and the instructional technology department started working closely together to provide training to faculty members.

Michelle Perkins, director of instructional technology at Atlantic Cape, said the college now offers four accessibility workshops to instructors, from beginner level to advanced. Basic training is mandatory, but participation in the more advanced sessions is voluntary. Perkins said she has been pleased with the number of faculty members who have taken part in the more advanced training, even if they don’t have great computer skills. The training teaches faculty how to create accessible content with colors, fonts and descriptions that can be picked up by screen readers and other assistive technologies. It also teaches them how to assess whether products they purchase from publishers are accessible.

Persuading busy faculty to attend workshops is never easy, but attendance has been encouraged through emails and the work of "accessibility champions" -- faculty members who are available to offer support or answer questions should other faculty need help. The instructional technology team is also on hand to troubleshoot any specific issues faculty have, said Perkins.

Atlantic Cape uses Blackboard Ally technology that alerts faculty if the content they upload to the learning management system is not accessible, with specific feedback and instructions on how to fix each issue, said Perkins.

Nicolaas Matthijs, product director of Blackboard Ally, said the tool is now used by 550 colleges and universities. Unlike other commercially available website-accessibility checkers, Ally is designed to work with digital course content and multiple learning management systems, he said.

The Ally team is working not only to give institutions more detailed accessibility reports, but is also building out the tool to offer live feedback and support -- possibly checking the accessibility of content not just in the LMS or on a college website, but in instructors’ Google Drive or Dropbox accounts. A spokesperson for Blackboard Ally declined to comment on how much the tool costs.

According to Ally stats, 90 percent of the course material in Atlantic Cape’s LMS is now accessible to students with visual or other impairments, said Perkins. The tool also enables administrators to identify materials that are not meeting requirements. This data insight can be used to generate reports on progress in ADA compliance by departments and also pinpoint faculty who may need extra support.

“Ninety percent looks awesome, but we still have work to do,” said Barnes. “We spend a lot of time reviewing content on our LMS -- sometimes there are files that are buried.”

Though individual faculty can be identified and potentially ranked on the accessibility of their course materials, the objective is not to shame or punish anyone who is not meeting the desired standard, said Barnes.

“We’re not going to people’s bosses and telling them someone’s course materials are not accessible,” he said. “We’ll have brown-bag lunches; we’ll go through the content one on one and see how we can be of support.”

“This is not about minimizing the instructor’s experience -- some of them have been teaching for 30 or 40 years. This is about taking the valuable materials that they’ve created and asking how we can make them into an accessible digital format.”

In addition to data insights, Blackboard Ally also automates some work, said Perkins. If an instructor uploads a PDF, for example, Blackboard Ally will automatically generate the document in multiple file formats for students to download. Students can then easily access the material on their phone, tablet, e-reader or other assistive technology.

Making content available in multiple formats has benefited all students, not just those with disabilities, said Perkins. Students with long commutes can now have course materials narrated to them while they drive, for example. Accessibility isn’t just for the obvious students who need it -- it’s for the benefit of everyone, she said.

Because students with disabilities are not required to register with the Center for Accessibility, faculty are keenly aware that their classes need to be accessible to all students at all times, said Barnes.

"This has really resonated with faculty," he said. "My office could have no idea if they're here, and they have the legal right to take your class." ​

Barnes said the college has seen an increase in the enrollment of students with disabilities.

“We have students now forgoing other institutions to come here,” he said.

Since 2016, the number of students with disabilities who have registered with the Center for Accessibility has increased by 25 percent and is now at around 500 students. College administrators have no way of knowing how many others are enrolled but didn't register with the center.

Juliana Torres, a student at Atlantic Cape who is due to graduate this month, is visually impaired. In her four years at the college pursuing three majors, Torres said she has noticed major improvements in the support services available to her.

“I had a lot of anxiety deciding whether or not to go to college,” she said. A New Jersey native who wants to become a professional caterer, Torres said she was attracted to Atlantic Cape because of its strong culinary arts program.

“I don’t want to say that there weren’t support services when I started, but they have improved," she said. "I now have the accommodations that I need to have a seemingly normal day-to-day school life.”

Support staff helped her plan her course schedule and ensured she was able to access course materials in a way that worked for her.

Though the support staff has been instrumental in helping her succeed, Torres believes they are stretched too thin and feels guilty that she took up so much of a staff member's time. “The support staff needs more support,” she said.

Torres said she has nonetheless been pleased with her experience.

“Not everyone needs or wants to go to college,” she said. “But I’m very grateful for the fact that I was able to come here and get the support I needed.”

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