A Preliminary Victory for Blind Students
Mark A. Riccobono is the President of the National Federation of the Blind.
Last summer, I wrote about actions by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that substantively curtailed the rights of students and of organizations like the National Federation of the Blind to seek remedies for discrimination by colleges and universities.
Specifically, OCR had revised its case processing manual to provide that its personnel would dismiss complaints filed by an individual or organization who had filed a complaint before, as well as complaints against multiple colleges. Furthermore, OCR said that those whose complaints were dismissed would have no appeal process.
The National Federation of the Blind, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed suit to stop this provision from going into effect. Despite our litigation, OCR dismissed nearly seven hundred complaints in furtherance of its new rule.
I am pleased to report that DOE has now partially rolled back its unlawful and unwise effort to reduce its caseload at the expense of blind students and others. The Department has removed section 108(t)—the main provision of its case processing manual that we challenged—and instated a new appeals process. This is a clear victory for blind students and others who rely upon OCR for the protection of their rights.
There can be little doubt that this move was made in response to our litigation. In fact, DOE probably hopes that the court will throw out our case on the ground of mootness. But we will not give up in court without a fight. DOE has now revised its case processing manual twice without proper notice and an opportunity for the public to comment, and there’s no guarantee that the Department won’t simply change the manual again whenever it pleases. Furthermore, while the Department has told the court that it will reopen the cases that were closed, we are not prepared to simply accept that assertion on faith. We still want a court order declaring that the Department’s actions were unlawful and cannot be repeated, or else a settlement agreement or consent decree in which DOE promises not to engage in this unlawful behavior again.
The right to an equal education is a fundamental component of America’s promise, and denying students the right to enforce their civil rights denies them the educational foundation they need to succeed, contribute to their communities, and live the lives they want. The National Federation of the Blind will remain steadfast and vigilant in protecting and advancing the ability of blind students to advocate for themselves, but also, when necessary, to take their cases to the agency that is charged by law with enforcing their rights.