In August 2016, the Department of Justice sent a letter to the University of California, Berkeley, asking it to implement procedures to make publicly available online audio and video content accessible to people who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf and blind, and blind. Rather than comply with this request, the university took the outrageous step of ending public access to those valuable resources, which include over 20,000 audio and video files, to avoid the costs of making the materials accessible.
We, the undersigned, strongly object to Berkeley’s choice to remove the content, and its public statement that disability access requirements forced the decision. That is not the case. Berkeley has for years systematically neglected to ensure the accessibility of its own content, despite the existence of internal guidelines advising how to do so. Further, the Justice Department letter left room for many alternatives short of such a drastic step. It was never the intent of the complainants to the department, nor of the disability community, to see the content taken down.
The public response to Berkeley’s announcement -- and to Inside Higher Ed’s reporting -- has been disheartening. While some commenters have acknowledged the need for accessible e-learning content, others have cast blame on those seeking access, accusing people with disabilities of putting their own interests first. Many have suggested that calls for access, such as captioning and audio description for video content, deprive the broader public of these resources. Many misrepresent this issue as one where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
In fact, people who depend on the accessibility of online course content constitute a significant portion of the population. There are between 36and48 million individuals in the United States with hearing loss, or about 15 percent of the population. An estimated 21 million individuals are blind or visually impaired. Altogether, about one in five adults in the United States has a functional disability.
The prevalence of disability increases significantly after the age of 65: more than one in three older adults have hearing loss, and nearly one in five have vision loss. Refusing to provide public access to online content negates the principle of lifelong learning, including for those who may eventually acquire a disability. Moreover, many individuals without hearing and vision disabilities benefit from accessible online course content.
Despite the large number of people who stand to gain from accessible content, changes to existing practice are rarely made voluntarily and typically occur through the enforcement of disability civil-rights laws. Those laws, including the Americans With Disabilities Act and its 2008 amendment, were passed unanimously or with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
Once disability civil-rights laws are passed and implemented, the broader public stands to gain. As laid out by “The Curb Cut Effect,” the installation of curb cuts -- a direct consequence of the unanimously passed 1968 Architectural Barriers Act -- permitted diverse public access that has nothing to do with wheelchairs: baby strollers, shopping carts, bicycles, roller skates, skateboards, dollies and so forth. Today, curb cuts are so ubiquitous that we do not usually think about their existence anymore, yet we cannot imagine our country without them. In fact, Berkeley, often considered the birthplace of the civil-rights movement, led the way in curb cut implementation.
It was never the intention of the complainants or their allies to have course content removed from public access. With the recent mirroring of 20,000 public lectures, the net outcome is that we are back to square one with inaccessible content, now outside of the control of Berkeley. (We wish to emphasize that we have no quarrel with the decision to mirror the content, and affirm the right to freedom of speech in the strongest terms.)
The letter cannot have come as a surprise to Berkeley. In February 2013, seven months after the university announced its partnership in edX with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, faculty and staff members on Berkeley’s now-dismantled Academic Accommodations Board met to discuss how to “make sure students with disabilities have access” in “online education, including MOOCs.” There, board members warned that the university needed strong and immediate plans for disability access in its MOOCs.
In April 2014, the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, on behalf of the complainants, contacted Berkeley and offered to engage in structured negotiation -- a successful method of dispute resolution that has been used with some of today’s biggest champions of captionedonline video content. When the offer of structured negotiations went nowhere, the center filed with the Department of Justice in October 2014.
The Justice Department letter issued in August 2016 found that Berkeley had failed to enforce the accessibility of such content, resulting in few of their video or audio files being accessible. The department asked that the university strengthen its procedures to enforce accessibility guidelines. In response, rather than make the suggested changes, Berkeley publicly threatened to withdraw content and then went ahead with its March 2017 announcement to remove content.
We acknowledge that remedial accessibility work -- after-the-fact efforts to make content accessible -- can be costly. Such work requires not only the addition of captions and audio descriptions but also checking to ensure that documents and materials can be read by screen readers or accessed on a variety of devices. That is why it is so important that leadership enforce accessibility policies from the beginning. The ADA contains an undue-burden defense that protects public entities that cannot afford to make accessibility changes. But it is difficult to see how this applies here, since Berkeley was offered the option to make content accessible over a longer period of time to keep the cost manageable.
The fact that the online content is free is immaterial. Civil-rights justice and access are built on the premise that everyone, with or without a disability, should be able to participate. Online educational content has become a key ingredient of community participation, irrespective of whether it is free or paid. Moreover, Berkeley created the content at the outset -- which means taxpayers, including taxpayers with disabilities, partially funded it.
Barriers to accessing the educational materials of a respected university hinder community participation by people with disabilities. Most of the signatories to this article experience such barriers on a very personal level. The removal of digital access barriers is a crucial endeavor for a society that continues to revise its aspiration of justice for all. We urge the university to reconsider its decisions.
Christian Vogler is an associate professor and director of the Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University.
Others Undersigned (Institutional affiliations are provided for identification purposes only):
Robert M. Anderson, professor emeritus of economics and mathematics, University of California, Berkeley
Teresa Burke, associate professor of philosophy, Gallaudet University
Patrick Boudreault, associate professor of interpretation and translation, Gallaudet
Claudia Center, adjunct professor of disability rights law at Berkeley Law School and senior staff attorney at National ACLU's Disability Rights Program
Mel Y. Chen, associate professor of gender and women's studies, Berkeley
Geoffrey Clegg, faculty specialist I, Western Michigan University
Lawrence Cohen, professor of anthropology and South and Southeast Asian studies, Berkeley
Marianne Constable, professor of rhetoric, Berkeley
Adam Cureton, assistant professor of philosophy, University of Tennessee
Philip Kan Gotanda, professor of theater, dance and performance studies, Berkeley
Alastair Iles, associate professor of environmental policy and societal change, Berkeley
Stephanie L. Kerschbaum, associate professor of English, University of Delaware
Raja Kushalnagar, associate professor and director, Information Technology Program, Gallaudet
Celeste Langan, associate professor of English, Berkeley
Arlene Mayerson, adjunct professor of disability rights law, Berkeley Law School; directing attorney, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
Karen Nakamura, Robert and Colleen Haas Distinguished Chair in Disability Studies and professor of anthropology, Berkeley
Stephen A. Rosenbaum, John & Elizabeth Boalt Lecturer, visiting researcher scholar, Haas Institute, Berkeley
Leslie Salzinger, associate professor of gender and women’s studies, Berkeley
Susan Schweik, professor of English, Berkeley
Katherine Sherwood, professor emerita of art practice and disability studies, Berkeley
Charlotte Smith, faculty lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health
John F. Waldo, counsel to the Association of Late-Deafened Adults, Washington State Communication Access Project and Oregon Communication Access Project
Lisa Wymore, associate professor of theater, dance and performance studies, Berkeley American Council of the Blind -- Eric Bridges, executive director
Association of Late-Deafened Adults -- Sharaine Roberts, president
Communication Service for the Deaf -- David Bahar, director of public policy and government affairs
Faculty Coalition for Disability Rights at the University of California, Berkeley -- Georgina Kleege, president
Hearing Loss Association of America -- Barbara Kelley, executive director Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Inc. -- Claude Stout, executive director
When I applied to college, I had used a wheelchair -- the result of a spinal cord injury that paralyzed me from the chest down -- for a little over half a year. I believed that every higher education institution was wheelchair accessible (after all, I was certainly not the first wheelchair user to go to college), and so I applied to colleges as if I were able-bodied. This, I quickly found out, was a mistake. I applied to eight institutions but only had the time and resources to visit two, one of which was a large research university.
The visit was a disaster. Multiple entrances to the main campus included staircases, and I had to circle around the campus before I found a flat entrance. Once I made it to the main campus, I wheeled over an unstable wooden plank placed over a short staircase. This, a tour guide explained, was a ramp.
I needed to use an elevator to get to another part of the campus, which was fine, except that the elevator was locked and campus security had the key. I pressed a button calling for security that was located by the elevator and waited about 15 minutes before a security guard who was doing his rounds showed up. He said the button I had been pressing was broken.
Later during that visit, I noticed an elevator to get into one of the libraries, but it was too small for my wheelchair. As if I didn’t have enough warning signs, I watched a student use his power chair across a section of cobblestones on the campus. As his chair bounced and jostled along the dangerously uneven surface, I wondered if I could withdraw my application and get a refund on the application fee. (You can’t.)
“How do wheelchair-using students get around?” I asked a tour guide.
He shrugged. “They manage.” I suppose I could’ve managed, too, for four years. But I had no guarantee that the situation wouldn’t get worse -- like at Boston College, which, in part because of renovations, has faced federal and state investigations for possible violations of accessibility laws.
Besides, the lack of concern for my needs made me feel unwelcome. Physical space and a well-functioning infrastructure on a campus cannot be overlooked, especially when one has a disability. What better way to tell a wheelchair user that they don’t belong at a college or university than by strewing the campus with stairs, broken help buttons and pitiful excuses for ramps?
Although institutions of higher education are legally required to accommodate students with disabilities, in practice much of the responsibility for finding proper accommodations falls on the students themselves. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation recommends that college applicants who are living with paralysis “visit the campus beforehand whenever possible, to determine if all of your needs and concerns can be addressed” and provides a number of questions that wheelchair-using students should ask administrators to ensure that they can practically attend a particular institution. For example, how accessible is the campus, and what are the rules with regard to relocating courses in inaccessible buildings? While this advice is useful, it also presupposes that not all colleges and universities can provide sufficient accommodations for students with disabilities.
College administrations can get away with shirking their responsibilities because the legal requirements are so vaguely worded. The Americans With Disabilities Act has been around for over 25 years, and one would think that this law would prevent any roadblocks that students with disabilities face in their quest for higher education. But the legal language of the ADA requires “reasonable accommodations,” a phrase that is very much open to interpretation.
The disability services office at the second institution I visited assured me that a wheelchair-accessible dorm room was available, and they were more than happy to show me a room. But the room was small and could not have fit my physical therapy equipment (which I use regularly to prevent blood clots, muscle atrophy and pressure sores -- some of which could result in hospitalization). It was also in a building at the bottom of a steep hill. Disability services said that this was because there was also a food court at the bottom of the hill -- but the main library, classroom buildings and another food court were at the top. To the administration, this room, with its accessible bathroom and location within an accessible building that was near food, was a reasonable accommodation. But for a wheelchair-using student who also has to get to the library and to class, it was anything but.
Two unsuccessful campus visits later, it was obvious that I would have to vet both campuses and disability services offices before I committed to attend a college or university. If campus disability services and I disagreed on what constituted a reasonable accommodation before enrollment, then that did not bode well for the following four years.
Further, I needed to know that the disability services office was going to work with other administrative bodies and the faculty. In 2014, Inside Higher Edreported that ignorance among faculty and staff members at certain colleges and universities made it difficult for students with disabilities to receive accommodations. Moreover, some students with invisible disabilities (like bipolar disorder) anticipated so much resistance that they were uncomfortable even disclosing that they needed assistance.
When students receive little administrative help, they must advocate for themselves in order to make college achievable. A Rutgers University study from 2012 found that students with disabilities are successful in college in large part due to self-advocating, mentoring and perseverance. As the tour guide at the large research university said, “They manage” -- on their own.
Yet many new college students have just barely reached legal adulthood, and self-advocacy is as new to some of them as college life is to any freshman. Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, students do not need to advocate for their needs in a K-12 setting because schools must serve their educational needs. In college, students suddenly need to manage their living arrangements as well as their educational needs, and having to fight for accommodation adds extra complication to an already difficult adjustment. College also introduces new bureaucracies, and, often, larger staffs and faculties, which can be overwhelming for any student, regardless of ability.
Down With Barriers
I took the Reeve Foundation’s advice seriously and sought out a college that could accommodate my disability. After I heard from the institutions that accepted me, I made a rule for myself: if I couldn’t find the disability services website on an institution’s page within two minutes, it was probably a bad fit. Whenever I could, I checked campus accessibility maps, shuttle schedules and other transportation services -- and even topographic gradients. (It turns out that one of my potential colleges was located on a hill, so there was another application fee I wasn’t getting back.) I reached out to disability services offices to get their perspective on what constituted a reasonable accommodation, and I eventually found a fit.
The thing that boggles my mind most about the experience is that finding a college was so difficult, even though all I needed was basic wheelchair access and a room large enough for my physical therapy equipment. What if my disability had more specialized requirements? What if my disability was invisible, or what if I was concerned about disclosing my disability? What would I have done, and how would I have decided on a college?
The mainstream attitude toward applying to college dictates that students with disabilities are responsible for finding an institution that accommodates them. Currently, students with disabilities must visit every college campus they’re seriously considering -- a costly endeavor -- and although some may have never had to advocate for themselves before, they must navigate university bureaucracies and vet disability services offices to ensure a good fit. Even if the disability services office is on top of its game, students may still encounter issues with a lack of services or general ignorance of their condition among faculty members and others.
This reality is completely unacceptable. Colleges and universities should be responsible for providing and improving existing accommodations. They need to get better at this, and they need to get better soon, because a growing number of students with disabilities are enrolling in institutions of higher education.
My wheelchair should never have been a barrier to higher education. Nobody’s should. If a student has been accepted to a college, their ability to attend should never be in question. It’s time to take the burden off students with disabilities in the application process and ensure that all college and universities can accommodate their needs.
Valerie Piro is an Ed.M. student in higher education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This article originally appeared on The Establishment, a multimedia site run and funded by women.