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.