Working Together to Remove Barriers

One of the Department’s central goals is to foster equitable education opportunities for all students and to eliminate barriers to those opportunities. What follows is an account of an important resolution agreement reached between our Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the University of Phoenix to ensure equal access for students with disabilities to online education.

MK Wilkinson has severe presbyopia and dyslexia – vision and visual processing disorders that prevent her from reading in the conventional manner. She describes it this way: “My eyes hit 50 years old when I was 10 years old; now my eyes are like those of someone who is over 120 years of age.” This means that she needs assistive technology to read text and to communicate with other students online.

In 2010, MK enrolled at the University of Phoenix, the nation’s largest online education provider. She uses a screen reader, which reads text out loud as it appears on a screen. At first, the materials in MK’s online classes at the university were accessible to her.

Then, in 2014, MK ran into a virtual wall: the university had switched to “the New Classroom,” parts of which she could not access. “When they switched to the New Classroom format,” MK explained, “my instructors literally put up an image with text in it; no screen reader can read text embedded into a picture, so I couldn’t work with it.”

MK tried multiple times to resolve these barriers within the university system, without success. In 2014, MK filed a civil rights complaint asserting that the university’s polices violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. OCR’s policy, which is grounded in Section 504 regulations, states that students who are blind or have low vision “must be afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted students.”

OCR opened an investigation and surveyed approximately 350 current and former University of Phoenix students who use assistive technology and also interviewed many of them. Many students praised the university DSO counselors but also stated they could not fully access the New Classroom environment without assistance from a nondisabled person. The Department’s Office of the Chief Information Officer assisted OCR by using web conferencing technology to demonstrate visually and audibly to university officials just how those who use screen readers experienced barriers in the New Classroom.

In June 2015, the University of Phoenix entered into a voluntary resolution agreement with the Department, under which the university committed, among other things, to create a plan to ensure that its new online technology is accessible, remove barriers to access for existing content, and convert inaccessible documents to accessible documents within 24 hours of receiving a request. The university also agreed to offer MK and other former students with disabilities who experienced technological barriers the opportunity to have their prior grades reevaluated or to repeat or take new courses free of charge in an accessible online environment.

The university views OCR’s investigation in a positive light: “We see our work with OCR and the Department of Education as one of collaboration. We are grateful for the feedback from OCR because it helps us better serve our students with disabilities,” said Dr. Meredith Curley, University Provost.

MK is pleased with the outcome and hopes that the impact of her case is widespread. “My hope – and what I believe it’s going to do – is to place people with limitations on an even playing field with those without them. The independence and self-respect that you get if you can sit down to a computer and do your assignment by yourself is incredible. We all want to have the opportunity to work at the same pace and level as everyone else.”

Robert Kim, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Strategic Operations and Outreach, Office for Civil Rights.

3 Comments

  1. There is PLENTY of money in education to hire and train enough specialist ts for IT, Curriculum and Instruction, Community outreach, etc….but as with every business it is how the tax dollars, federal and state grants/monies are being allocated…the values of education that determines the outcome.

    When an Athletic Director is paid $120,000/year, has two secretaries and one, or two even, Assistant Directors, too much money is being allocated toward some people’s educational salaries, and associated benefits, instead of the children’s needs. (He/she is an overpaid scheduler.)

    When the Superintendent of a small school district in upstate New York was being paid more than the Governor of the state of New York, (a few years ago, at least)…we have a values, and money allocation problem.

    When districts are adopting (some) technology, but not purchasing the service-maintenance package, to save money, but the technology problems cause the use of the technology to be dysfunctional, what good was the (partial) investment anyways?

    When “FREE and APPROPRIATE public education” registration requires a technology fee…that’s not free, nor is the coach’s mandated $100.00 high top sneakers’ purchase, (to play on a high school basketball team) nor the “required” practice jerseys…, nor is purchasing raffle or fund raiser tickets, expensive calculators, etc. all that MANY can’t afford.

    When teachers require use of Apps for classroom and club participation, but not all kids (families) can afford those expensive phones with apps, (and are embarrassed for being put in a precarious situation in front of their peers thus forced to lie to save face and stating they “left their phone at home”), we have some huge problems in our FREE and APPROPRIATE public education.

    Recently I had a young child disclose her love for a school activity but when I asked her why she doesn’t participate in the after school club, she stated, “her parents can’t come pick her up”. Why are there no after school buses so students can stay after and participate in clubs, or get academic support, or even participate in athletics (with some form of support), so kids stay off of streets and out of trouble, and do well at school…Where is the GUIDANCE department?

    I have been saddened by the pretentious attitudes and assumptions that make kids feel bad, ostracizes them for their inability to “measure up” to many, within the FREE and appropriate public education.

    There is plenty of money in education–look at the expensive athletic facilities, the salaries and benefits of many, etc, (some states/districts more than others) but it is ALL about the values of the leaders/the decision-makers.

    There is plenty of knowledge and information about both the various learning disabilities and educational, (IT) tools we have to diagnostically screen and service these students…it’s just not a value, a priority, but an expensive running tracks is.

    There are many facilities that can and do provide guidance and support for how to screen and service the MANY students whom struggle in school, that “weighting” their grade to passing is actually hurting them for future success, and an integrity problem.

    Many colleges (with bigger pockets) have access to the needed technology and resources to help students–we need to adopt similar supports in K-12 and reallocate monies from “other” agendas to the actual education and learning part of why the law forces all kids to be at school.

    Many choose to keep their heads in the sand, make excuses, etc, while children suffer, or get pushed through a system with little true success and accountability. Most go into education for all the right reasons, but the political layers and poor decision making, (allocation of money) is a huge problem.

    If we can push a few buttons and view a Utube video to fix a radiator hose, we can most definitely access all the information we need to level playing field in our public education system and get updated screening, IT services and supports….it is all about what we value and who is willing to hold people accountable for a billion dollar industry..where tax payers are paying for everything but what really should matter!

  2. As a teacher, advocate for students with disabilities and mother of students with disabilities I am saddened that MK could not have her valid barrier handled professionally, and resolved without the need to file an OCR complaint that took great time, money and resources, to investigate and compile a compliance plan—whatever happened to just doing the right thing—what if KM were you?

    She lost time but gained a great distrust, and most likely disrespect, in those whom have vowed to serve and protect out most vulnerable, the students, (especially those with disabilities).

    I agree with the last post…the ill-addressed technology issues, (and other educational issues) are not just confined to the collegiate level–I see it from elementary-high school.

    Often in education we run with programs, before we walk, lose two steps, cause a lot of distress, and then re-mediate, at the back end.

    I believe in detailed planning, cautious execution and a front-end-loaded implementation strategy so to anticipate and avoid the situation MK was in….

    …isn’t her life challenging enough than to have educational institutions create more hardship??

  3. The story above was very enlightening. The article addresses inequitable access to technology at the college level. Do you have any information for parents of special needs kids who have the same challenges in high schools, middle schools and elementary schools across the country? Many of us have the same issue.
    How do you suggest parents, teachers, and students find agreement on appropriate and reasonable technology accommodations and modifications to meet their unique individualized needs as part of IDEA or Section 504 along with the common core curriculum?
    Does each state have a place parents can access to try and find resources to try and match the students individualized needs with the technology needed. Unfortunately, many school districts are understaffed with AT specialists to support the number of students with disabilities or do not have the background in the deficit or disability to make and support adequate recommendations that would help level the playing field for these students. This seems to be a problem that crosses all cultural and economic domains. Thank you.

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