Penn State Accused of Discriminating Against Blind Students

Blind students and professors suffer “pervasive and ongoing discrimination” at Penn State University because of the widely inaccessible nature of technology used on the campus, according to a federal complaint filed today by the country’s largest organization of blind people.

In contrast to its other recent campaigns elsewhere, which were narrower in scope, the National Federation of the Blind this time cites accessibility problems across the university. They include Penn State’s course-management software, library catalogue, and departmental Web sites. Even the Web site for its Office of Disability Services is not fully accessible to the blind, said the federation.

The complaint asks the Department of Education to investigate Penn State for allegedly violating the civil rights of blind people under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Christopher Danielsen, a spokesman for the federation, said it hopes the complaint will be “a wake-up call for universities across the country.”

Annemarie Mountz, a spokeswoman for Penn State, said the university is looking into the complaint. “Issues of equity and accessibility are immensely important, and we take them very seriously,” she said in an e-mail. “But since we have not yet received the details of the claim, we cannot offer comment on it.”

The seven-page complaint, forwarded to The Chronicle by the federation, paints a picture of misery for blind students trying to go about basic academic business at Penn State. If they’re trying to pick a major, for example, they may encounter departmental Web sites where images and links aren’t tagged in a way that makes them accessible to the read-aloud software used by blind people to navigate the Web.

Another problem is the university’s Angel course-management software, a digital classroom that “is almost totally inaccessible for blind users,” according to the complaint.

In its full version, Angel’s e-mail, calendar, assignments, chat, discussion groups and gradebook are all inaccessible, the complaint says. Blind students must use a “PDA mode,” the complaint says, which has less utility but some accessibility features.

Blackboard acquired Angel last year. It’s unclear exactly how many colleges use the system because Blackboard does not publicly report the number of clients on different platforms or versions of its software. But a press release issued at the time of the acquisition said Angel had over 400 clients.

Jim Hermens, Blackboard’s senior vice president of product management and strategy, said his company was reviewing the complaint.

“We place a high value on user accessibility, and as a result have designed a wide range of accessibility features into our products,” he said in a prepared statement. He also noted that the National Federation of the Blind had certified the latest release of Blackboard Learn for accessibility.

For faculty, another problem cited in the complaint is technology that allows professors to connect their laptops to a podium and display content on a screen. The touchscreen keypad, the complaint says, forces blind faculty members to depend on help from a sighted person to operate them.

The federation demanded that Penn State take a range of steps to deal with these issues, including hiring accessibility coordinators who report to the chief information officer, and conducting an accessibility audit and writing clear accessibility policies. Daniel F. Goldstein, an outside counsel to the federation, said he hoped that Penn State and the Education Department would develop a template for accessible technology that could be adopted by other colleges.

The federation’s complaint comes a day after the release of a report warning that many colleges could be vulnerable to complaints about accessibility because of the decentralized way they handle ensuring compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The Penn State complaint is the latest step in a continuing campaign against inaccessible technology. In 2009, advocates for the blind sued Arizona State University over its use of the Kindle. They also asked the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to investigate whether e-book practices at several universities violated the rights of blind students under the Americans With Disabilities Act. In January a series of agreements was announced in which colleges pledged not to use Amazon’s Kindle or any similar devices “unless the devices are fully accessible to students who are blind and have low vision.”

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