Louisiana Tech University’s agreement this week to stop using learning materials that limit access for students with visual disabilities signifies a broader shift in the extent to which colleges are expected to address accessibility, experts say.
That settlement  with the U.S. Justice Department over allegations that the university violated the Americans with Disabilities Act is the latest in a series of cases this year, which, taken together, paint a fuller picture of what colleges must do to ensure students with visual impairments can access learning materials – if not exactly how they should do it.
“I think it is a game-changer for colleges,” said Lizanne DeStefano, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who sat on the U.S. Education Department’s 2011 Commission  on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities.
“Most colleges provide services for students with visual impairment and other special needs as far as getting the materials,” DeStefano said. “But I think the timing and the quality of those materials vary widely from campus to campus, and this will probably raise the quality and shorten the time and equalize that variability a little bit.”
That way, a blind student might not have to go to some room across campus in the middle of the night to do homework because the technology is only in one place, or fall weeks behind in class while waiting for digital conversions of textbooks.
The Louisiana Tech settlement in particular goes further than previous statements by Justice in that it prohibits the university from buying any inaccessible materials in the future, and requires cooperation from faculty in ensuring that disabled students get what they need. “When you look at this as the most recent statement in a trend, it’s a very powerful trend," said Scott Lissner, president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability.
The Louisiana Tech settlement  with the U.S. Justice Department follows a settlement  in March between the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights and the South Carolina Technical College System. In that case, the system agreed to revise all its institutions’ websites to make them accessible and review them annually. That settlement also emphasized that ease of use should be substantially equivalent for all students. And just two months ago, the University of California at Berkeley settled  in a private lawsuit filed by three disabled students there, agreeing to create a first-of-its-kind library print-to-digital conversion system..
(Settlement agreements like the two above are specific to those institutions and not legally binding anywhere else, but they are looked to by all campuses as guidance for what will and won’t fly under laws like ADA.)
Dating further back, to 2010, the federal government has been pushing this issue. In a joint “Dear Colleague” letter  to colleges and universities, Justice and Education noted that institutions using electronic book readers without an accessible text-to-speech function were violating discrimination laws. The letter was sent six months after Justice settled complaints  with colleges over their use of the Amazon Kindle, but advised institutions to think broadly about all their educational materials.
“I think it clearly says, look, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice and private advocacy are all three moving in the same direction,” said Lissner, who is also ADA coordinator at Ohio State University. “This isn’t precedent, but I think it’s awfully informative and that a campus response reasonably would be to start – if I haven’t already done – a review of my use of technology and web-based tools for accessibility.”
Per the settlement agreement, Louisiana Tech must “ensure” from here on out that “all technology, including websites, instructional materials and online courses, and other electronic and informational technology for use by students or prospective students, is accessible.”
And it won’t be enough simply to keep some audiobooks on hand somewhere.
“ 'Accessible’ means a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use,” the agreement continues. “The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally and independently as a person without a disability.”
But Lissner said some campus officials have qualms about the direction of the government and questions about how deeply they should examine their own services.
“I hear institutions and organizations representing institutions being concerned that there’s not a clear technical standard and that doing some of this is maybe putting the cart before the horse,” Lissner said. “I hear general concern about, ‘Can I do it in the time frame they want me to do this?’ They’re pushing this pretty fast, and budgets are still tight.”
Other people have told Lissner that they didn’t want to investigate whether students were having problems because, if they were and the college didn’t do anything about it, the institutions might be more liable if federal investigators came knocking. (Lissner argues this is not the case.)
And despite the clarity on fundamentals, exactly how to provide the appropriate services remains a question, said Lauren McLarney, government affairs specialist at the National Federation of the Blind.
The Justice Department has told colleges they want them to use technology that can be accessed by all students – all Apple products, for example, have features making them workable for the visually impaired. But it has also said that alternatives – which may or may not be better for students -- can be acceptable. (The Louisiana Tech settlement would appear to be a departure from this stance.)
“There is either an ignorance or a lack of clarity about what accessibility and equal access look like,” McLarney said. “There is no such thing as separate but equal when we’re talking about emerging technology… it’s too new.”
The ADA complaint leading to the settlement was filed by a blind student who couldn’t access Louisiana Tech’s online learning platform, MyOMLab. When the student went to the course’s professor for help, the professor told the student to consult MyOMLab for help. Ten days later, after that contact was made, the problem persisted, and the student went to administrators in the university’s office of disability services.
But, more than a month into the semester, the student still couldn’t access the tutorials and homework materials on the website, and fell so far behind that withdrawing from the class became the only option. The student subsequently filed a complaint over the course.
Then, as Justice investigated the complaint, the same professor distributed inaccessible hard copy course materials in a different course and when the student asked for them in an online format, the professor told another student to handle it, “which ultimately occurred several days after the class session in which they were provided.”
While the student’s experience in the former class is an obvious case of discrimination, the situation in the latter course is a good example of the many less blatant ADA violations that are still not permissible because the disabled student does not receive equivalent support.
The student’s experience also sheds light on the settlement’s focus on faculty cooperation. While it doesn’t necessarily mandate that professors recreate each and every one of their documents, it does suggest they should keep students with visual disabilities in mind.
“The big key here is going to be engaging faculty because they produce a lot of materials,” DeStefano said. “That will make the life of the student support staff much, much easier.”