Blind students fight for accessible college classes | #students | #parents



In 2017, two blind students in the Los Angeles Community College District filed a lawsuit claiming that they and other blind students weren’t given accessible materials in math classes. The students say that without materials in braille or audio, or tutors to read the material out loud, the classes are almost impossible to pass, effectively barring students from transferring to a four-year college. 

California’s largest community college district is planning to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that federal disability rights laws don’t cover “unintentional discrimination.” What impact could this court case have on the rights of students with disabilities?

Transcript:

Anne:

Welcome to Education Beat. I’m Anne Vasquez, executive director at EdSource. In 2017 blind students in the Los Angeles community college district filed a lawsuit claiming that they weren’t given accessible materials in math classes. The students say that without information in braille or audio, or even tutors to read the material out loud, the classes were almost impossible to pass. And if they didn’t pass them, they couldn’t transfer to a four-year college.

Roy:

And it frustrates me and angers me because all they’re asking for is for help. So they can move on to a four year institution. To this day there’s friends that are still there, still trying to complete the statistics class.

Anne:

The state’s largest community college district is planning to appeal to the US Supreme Court. They argue that federal laws don’t cover unintentional discrimination against students with disabilities. What impact could this court case have on their rights? Here is this week’s Education Beat with host Zaidee Stavely.

Zaidee:

Roy Payan lost his sight when he was about 40 years old. And he decided he wanted to go back to school to try to figure out what to do with his life. So he enrolled in his local community college, East Los Angeles College. He did well at… at first.

Roy:

I took all these other classes and I excelled in them. I got As and Bs, but when it came down to the math department, I just struggled because I couldn’t make sense of the formulas.

Zaidee:

Roy needed math classes like algebra and statistics to be able to transfer to a four-year college. Roy’s counselor suggested he should transfer to another college in the same district, Los Angeles City College, because he thought they would have more accommodations for blind students. So Roy did that. But he just kept running into one barrier after another, especially with math. It seemed his professors just couldn’t understand what his experience as a blind student was like. One professor suggested they could make the tight bigger on the handouts.

Roy:

You can make it the size of a car. I’m not gonna see it. They’re like, well, we don’t understand. What do you want us to do? I said, make it accessible for me.

Zaidee:

Roy wanted the materials to work with the software that the school supplied to all blind students to read textbooks and classwork out loud.

Roy:

Give me something that’s gonna read to me, that’s gonna be compatible with my software.

Zaidee:

But it turned out the software wasn’t compatible with the math materials. It wasn’t designed to read math formulas, at least in a way that anyone could easily understand.

Roy:

As you write out a formula, it’s gotta be written out in a manner where the computer, as it speaks it out to you it’ll kind of draw or paint a picture in your head about what’s going on. But if it’s not written out correctly, then there’s no way for you to know what’s going on. So I’ll give you a good example. Let’s say we have algebra 3 X times 15 X plus 10Y plus 15Z over 3X plus 15Y. Well, whatever it was all written out just by numbers. And you don’t know that one is over the other. So at the end you go, well, what am I supposed to do with this? It’s all just numbers.

Zaidee:

Roy transferred to another class. And then another. Each time he ran into problems with his professors. Roy says one flat out, rejected him from the class because he was blind.

Roy:

He said, I’m sorry, but I can’t accept you in the class. So I asked why not? He said, because you’re blind and you’re gonna slow the class down too much. What do you mean? I bought the book. I did the assignment. He goes, yeah, but you’re not gonna be able to keep up. And it’s, it’s not fair to the rest of the class to have you in here.

Zaidee:

In another professor’s algebra course, Roy brought a recorder so he could record the professor’s lecture.

Roy:

He says, what is this? I said, it’s my recorder. He goes, two, turn it off. I said, what? He goes, turn it off. I don’t allow recordings in my class. So I said, well, that’s one of my accommodations. He goes, I don’t care. I don’t allow recordings in my class. I said, sir, you know, I, you don’t understand I’m blind. So again, he said, I don’t allow any recordings at all.

Zaidee:

In yet another class, the professor allowed Roy to record, but he was writing formulas on the board during class, but not explaining verbally what he was writing.

Roy:

As I got home and I’d review my recording all I could hear was, You see that? You see how I got that? Okay. See what I’m doing there? It’s like, come on. I’m not hearing anything.

Zaidee:

Roy decided he needed to demonstrate to the professor what it was actually like for him as a blind person trying to follow what was happening in the class and why he needed him to narrate what he was doing as he wrote out the formulas. So one day he asked him to sit in his desk, Roy’s desk, as if he were the student and Roy were the teacher.

Roy:

So I got my desk and I turned it around to face the back wall. I said, would you mind sitting here? He goes for what? I said, just humor me. Just sit here. So he sits down. I get the dry erase marker. And I go up to the board and I start writing stuff. And I said, keep looking now way. He said, all right. So I started writing stuff and I said, can you tell me what I just wrote on the board? He goes, well, no, obviously I can’t. I can’t see it. I said, well, welcome to my world. This is my world every day.

Zaidee:

The next morning Roy was told he could no longer attend the class.

Zaidee:

This is Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools. I’m Zaidee Stavely. This week, blind students fight for accessible college classes.

Zaidee:

Roy suspected that he wasn’t alone in struggling to access the math materials. So he decided to check in with other blind students.

Roy:

So I talked to you about fiftenn or more blind students. They all told me the same thing. We’ve done this. We’ve all gone to a professor. We’ve all gone to the chair. And he’s just always said that he can’t do anything. Like, what do you mean? That’s what he says. That he can’t do anything. Or he’ll say, well, I’ll look into it and that’s it. But he never does. I think at that point, one of the students had been there already six years or seven years.

Zaidee:

So Roy decided to go to the top, the chair of the math department. H.e told him about what he’d experienced and that there were other blind students facing the same problems. It didn’t go how he’d hoped.

Roy:

His exact words to me were, well, what would you like me to do? So I was very clear with him. I said, you’re the chair of one of the largest departments in the Los Angeles Community College Board District. If you get together with all the other chairs, you have the power and the leverage to force the vendor to fix this. And not just fix it for me, fix it for any blind student, that’s gonna come along. Because again, it doesn’t work for us. And he said to me, well, what makes you think I can do that? I said, you have the power and the leverage to do this. I’m I’m not gonna do that. And so I asked him, why not? He said, because there’s not enough of you to warrant a change. And I said, what do you mean there’s not enough enough? Enough blind people? Yes.

Zaidee:

Roy also spoke with the dean of the department and got a similar response. So he and another student decided to sue. He’s one of the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in 2017, claiming the Los Angeles Community College District did not provide important academic materials, such as algebra textbooks and syllabi in an audio or braille format. The plaintiffs say, students couldn’t finish prerequisites they needed to transfer to a four-year college. Some students hired their own tutors to read the material aloud, but others couldn’t afford tutors and spent years trying to obtain materials. And some gave up and dropped out. An attorney for the plaintiffs says the community college district could have done much more to get materials translated into a format that would work for blind students, to train instructors. But they didn’t. The community college district says it was unintentional. My colleague, Carolyn Jones wrote about this case for EdSource. And she’s here to talk about this case with me. Hi, Carolyn.

Carolyn:

Hi Zaidee.

Zaidee:

Did anything surprise you when you were reporting on this story? Or, you know, did you learn something from talking with Roy and learning about this case?

Carolyn:

Yeah. I was really surprised at how difficult it was for these students to get what they need. I would think with technology being what it is these days, it’s not that difficult to find this software that does this, converting everything on your computer screen, basically into an audio format. So I was really surprised that this was such a hurdle for students. And also, you know, thinking about math. Math is such a visual thing. We don’t, I mean, I never thought about that before, but it’s very hard to do math if you don’t have a piece of paper in front of you. It’s hard to visualize an equation. So I just had, you know, profound respect for these students who are really trying so hard to get through algebra so they can get on with their academic careers.

Zaidee:

What does the law say about what colleges need to provide for students with disabilities?

Carolyn:

Well the ADA passed in 1990. It’s a federal law and it says more or less that every college, every employer, you know, every organization in the country has to provide equal rights and opportunities to people regardless of their abilities, their physical abilities and mental abilities. So in the case of colleges, that means that they have to ensure that students with disabilities can take classes and do all the things they need to do to get an education.

Zaidee:

How many blind students are in this district and how many students with disabilities might be affected by this case?

Carolyn:

Well in this district, there’s probably an estimate three hundred or so students who are blind, but there’s probably five thousand disabled students in this district. Statewide there’s thousands and thousands of disabled students in community colleges. From what I understand, you know, community college is really a gateway for people with disabilities because it’s low cost, it’s convenient, it provides opportunities to transfer to a four-year school. I mean, it’s really key for disabled people, community colleges. So that’s why disability rights groups are watching this case so closely.

Zaidee:

How does the community college district respond to the allegations that Roy Payan and others have?

Carolyn:

The community college district says that they fully support the rights of disabled students. And that if discrimination happened, it was unintentional. And that that they did not set out to discriminate against a group of people. It was just a factor of bureaucracy and other issues.

Zaidee:

And what has happened… where’s the lawsuit now?

Carolyn:

Well initially in the first ruling, which was filed in federal court, in Southern California, the students won in kind of a mixed ruling, but it was mostly that they won. And then the district appealed and the students won on appeal too, but there was a three-judge panel and they voted two to one in favor of the students. And now the district is considering appealing it to the US Supreme Court. And right now they’re trying to negotiate a settlement, but the fact that it’s escalated this far and the district wants to continue fighting it has really kind of raised some red flags in the disability rights community.

Zaidee:

And why are they watching a case so closely? What does the case mean for the rights of other college students with disabilities?

Carolyn:

Well, what they say, the issue is that discrimination is discrimination. Whether it’s intentional or not. And even with the best intentions, it’s still discrimination. And so if discrimination hinged on what is intentional or not, it would subvert every anti-discrimination law in the country. So that’s why they’re concerned, especially about this case.

Zaidee:

Roy eventually decided to hire some tutors to read math materials out loud. That’s how he eventually was able to understand the materials and pass the class, but he paid out of his own pocket.

Roy:

Remember at that point I wasn’t receiving financial aid. I was on social security, so it created quite a burden for me. It’s like, I barely have enough money as it is, and I’m having to pay for tutors. And I mean, there was nothing else I could do that. That’s all I had.

Zaidee:

He graduated from Los Angeles City College in 2018. And he went on to Cal State LA, where he graduated last may with a bachelor’s degree in public administration. He’s now a doctoral student at the University of Southern California studying public policy. But Roy says many other blind students are still at Los Angeles City College, still trying to pass those math classes.

Roy:

They’re still there today because unlike me, they can’t afford a tutor or they’re, they’re just not as… I don’t like to be intimidated. I don’t like to be bullied by people like that. That’s just not me. But some of these other students, they’re not like me. And it frustrates me and irritates me and angers me to no point because they’re blind students and all they’re asking for is for help. And they just want to accomplish so they can move on to a four-year institution. But I don’t understand the insistence of a college that they won’t help them. And instead seek to attenuate their aspirations. I don’t, I don’t get that at all. What benefit does it give the college? Wouldn’t it benefit them more to say, what assistance do you need to graduate? And then let them move on. But to this day, there’s friends that are still there still trying to complete the statistics class.

Zaidee:

The Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees has said they will appeal the case to the US Supreme court. They have until March 4th to file an appeal. In the meantime, they’re trying to negotiate a settlement with the plaintiffs. Carolyn, what’s the end goal of this lawsuit?

Carolyn:

They want instructors to get a little bit better training on how they serve disabled students in their classroom. First of all, finding out if there’s disabled students in their classroom. It’s not something that’s always obvious. And then, you know, making sure that they have the software and the technical wherewithal to make sure that those students get what they need. And they wanna see permanent wide reaching changes happen at the community college level. In this particular district and then hopefully at all community colleges. So disabled students don’t have to jump through a million hoops and wade through all this bureaucracy, just to get basic services.

Roy:

I want something to be accessible for a person like me. That’s all I want. This lawsuit as we’re going through it, I’m hoping that we’re successful, but you have to remember that at the end of the day, by the time they fix these things, I’ll be out. Right now I’m working on my master’s and I’ll be going on to my doctorate at USC, but this doesn’t benefit me at all. Because I’ll be gone. This is for all those kids that come after me. It’s for those kids that are too timid, too afraid of the system to speak up. It’s for them.

Zaidee:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Education, Beat getting to the heart of California schools, a production of EdSource. Our producer is Coby McDonald. Special thanks to Roy Payan, Carolyn Jones and our director Anne Vasques. Our theme music is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by the College Futures Foundation. I’m Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week and subscribe so you won’t miss an episode.

 



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