A Test of Strength and Equality: Blind Students Organize against the College Board

MARK RICCOBONO:  This next convention presentation is one I'm really excited about.  You heard about this young lady in the presidential report if you tuned in to the resolutions committee, you already know the character of strength and determination.  This item is a strength of test in equality.  Blind students organized against the College Board.  We celebrate a lot of the work we do collectively in the National Federation of the Blind but this agenda item is truly about movement that this young lady spearheaded.  She was the one that really called the College Board to task and organized blind students and we just provided the technical assistance to give her voice power from New Jersey.  I am pleased to introduce Kaleigh Brendle!

(Music playing) "Sit Still Look Pretty."

KALEIGH BRENDLE:  Good afternoon.  Before I begin, I would just like to express what a true honor it is to be able to speak to all of you today.  My name is Kaleigh Brendle.  I am 17 years old.  And I am a rising senior in the scholar center for humanities program in New Jersey.  Since birth I have possessed a condition which left me visually impaired.

As many of you know, living with blindness can be a challenge, but it is that which challenges us that strengthens our resolve and solidifies our courage.

Keeping with that philosophy, I strive to challenge myself in all aspects of life, including most notably the classroom.  Since third grade my curriculum has consisted of rigorous courses.  As I grew older, the level of classes I could take grew more strenuous.  And in high school, the option arose for me to participate in courses classified as AP or advanced placement.

Advanced placement courses are essentially collegiate classes that high school students across the world are eligible to enroll in.  If a student performs well on the final exam of an AP course, they may be eligible to receive college credit, making the exams important for both academic and fiscal reasons, as AP courses are more cost effective than regular college classes.

The curriculums and final exams for these courses are created and administered by an organization called the College Board.  This organization also presides over other standardized tests like the SAT.  This past year, I was offered to take four AP courses:  I submitted my accommodation plan, asking for hard copy Braille exams.  For such visual courses as AP biology, that also meant that any diagrams or graphics would be tactilely produced for me.  I requested the common accommodation of breaks as needed to prevent such factors as eye strain or finger fatigue from interfering in my performance.

I was granted all of these accommodations.  Since accommodation plans applied to all College Board exams, I encountered no difficulties with the SAT when I took it this past December.  I was provided with everything I needed.  Thus, I expected the AP exams to be no different.

Then the pandemic struck and everything began to take an unexpected turn.  College Board announced that they were shortening and digitizing their exams with no intent to provide blind and deafblind students with Braille.  Their solution for those exams inclusive of graphics was something called alternative text, which screen reading software will read if it is coded into an image.  However, large blocks of text are not a substitute for the spatial information contained within a graph.  Moreover, the alt text is not visually accessible.  So if voiceover or JAWS were to malfunction, a parent or teacher of the visually impaired would be unable to assist the student by reading the description.

College Board's website informed me that 65% of my AP biology exam score would be dependent upon my ability to successfully interpret and analyze a single graphic.  If there were a lab, whose data was expressed in an XY coordinate plain with multiple lines for the experimental and control groups or other variants, I would not be able to feel and explore the graph and derive the information I need through touch, as any other student would through sight.

Executives suggested that blind and deafblind students use our Braille displays.  But these devices are extremely expensive and they only display a fraction of a sentence at a time.  So for those English-heavy exams where students need to quickly navigate between lengthy passages, this would prove insufficient.

I also desired to see what would happen if my technology were to glitch.  As Dr. Natalie Shaheen expertly phrased it, blind students have more opportunities for our devices to glitch, possessing two additional variables pertaining to our assistive technology.

In speaking with a representative, I learned that anytime it took me to resolve an issue with my technology would count against me in terms of my exam completion time.  For example, if I had an hour to complete an exam and assistive technological glitches ate up 45 minutes, I would have 15 minutes to test.

I could of course request a makeup, but if my devices were to glitch during that make up, I would have no more opportunities to test.

The suggest I received then from multiple College Board executives was, quote/unquote, use a device with less problems.  No one can foresee when technology will malfunction.  I found that suggest absurd and slightly offensive.

At this point I desired to see any other blind students I knew, if they were experiencing this.  I explained the problem on social media and it currently possesses almost 90,000 views, TVIs, parents, students began contacting me.  Some students were unaware this was even a problem and some had figured out, but, like me, they were unsure if anyone else was enduring this.  Many felt alone and exhausted for constantly fighting for their needs to be met so I orchestrated a Zoom call for just students where we all expressed our feelings.  It was a powerful experience for all of us.  Nicholas Scone, a student on that call with mechanical engineering aspirations, who would go on to join our eventual complaint, stated the following when recollecting about that call:  "I alone could not stand up to the discrimination from College Board.  It was great to know that other blind students also believed that our accommodations should not be reduced or eliminated during this pandemic."

At the same time, I was contacting the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and preparing to file a class complaint.  I also reached out to Valerie Yingling, the legal program coordinator of the National Federation of the Blind for assistance.  I began working closely with her and with Sharon, a managing partner of the Brown, Goldstein & Levy law firm.  With the experience of those individuals and my knowledge of the situation, we began assembling the necessary documentation.  Four other students, Ryan, Mitchell, and Nicholas signed on as complainants.  The Americans with Disabilities Act was created with the intent to provide students with an equal opportunity on standardized and other exams, asserted Ryan, one of the aforementioned complainants intent on pursuing a children's advocacy career.  He added, "Without accommodations, students with disabilities would be at a severe disadvantage to their nondisabled counterparts, and the entirety of their educational future would be jeopardized.  Filing a complaint against the College Board was the last thing we wanted to do, but advocating for our rights and the rights of other disabled students who needed a voice was a necessity."

He's exactly right.  Even after we filed, we did everything in our power to compromise.  As the complaint was submitted, I worked with Chris Danielsen of NFB to draft a press release.  The day after we filed, the press release circulated far and wide, and reporters began to pick up the story, including individuals affiliated with major media outlets like Fox News and New York Times.  That very same day we cross filed with the U.S. Department of Justice.  I spent the next three weeks on the phone with attorneys, executives, governmental officials, and the media.  As someone who desires to become a disability rights attorney and later run for office, thank you, Madam Speaker for that comment, I was and am extremely grateful for the experience.  However, I spent so much time attempting to ensure the accessibility of my exams that I hardly had time to study for them.  Regardless if I couldn't access them, studying would not help, so I did everything I could to resolve the issue.  I came in contact with the CEO of a Braille transcription company who expressed that if College Board could provide the exams, his staff would produce the Braille.  But College Board wouldn't do it.  Apparently what they were concerned about was security.  They were fearful of us cheating.  The NFB and I shared the many solutions they could implement to ensure that that wouldn't happen, but they would not listen.

Finally, they agreed to meet with us over Zoom to discuss the situation.  I received the honor of representing the students involved, and I became part of an incredible team.  This team consisting of technology specialist, Valerie Yingling, Sharon, Kevin, an esteemed disability advocate with Brown, Goldstein & Levy, and President Mark Riccobono, who allocated his support for our cause and expressed an earnest desire to assist us in any way he could.  We spent hours discussing the College Board's accessibility executives, and after two days they finally heard us.  They listened to us.  And they were ready to create an agreement.  The first call I made following this amazing break through was directly to the students.  Throughout then tire process, I always kept the students informed, posting recap calls every step of the way.  The relief and joy on those calls were unlike anything I have ever experienced.

Christopher Able, another complainant whose passions lie in finance, had this to say:  "I was not surprised to hear the great news of our success.  I knew we had a fantastic team of students and NFB leadership, and we were only seeking equal accommodations for blind students.  Given the solutions our team had provided College Board, it was simply much easier for them to fulfill our needs than to fight to exclude us.  I was certainly relieved to learn that our battle has finally reached its conclusion.  I was proud to work and get to know so many intelligent blind students and advocates."

In the following days, we solidified our agreement and I again collaborated with Mr. Danielsen to create a press release.  According to our agreement on the NFB's website, any student regardless of whether they had already taken the test with College Board's improper accommodations would be eligible to receive a hard copy Braille exam in September if they so desired.  On May 29, we withdrew our complaints.  The press release was issued.  And College Board began to fulfill their agreement.

I sincerely wish that the situation had not climbed to the zenith that it had, but all of us students were lucky to have one another and the NFB to guide us through that turbulent time.

Now other students will also be able to utilize this experience as an example of the type of self-advocacy they can exemplify as they strive to do so.  This is an assertion the complainant Mitchell, a future broadcast journalist, firmly believes, stating "It doesn't stop with College Board.  Blind people will face challenges and inequalities at virtually every turn.  Don't sit idly by."  I agree.  Every voice is powerful.  The no one should be afraid to raise theirs in the name of equality and opportunity.

I want to thank President Riccobono and the National Federation of the Blind for permitting me to share this story with you.  I ask you to remember that if ever an accommodation that you require is being denied or revoked, fight for what you know you need!  This May I showed that I am not blind to injustice.  If the situation arises for you, I encourage you to do the same.

Thank you.

MARK RICCOBONO:  Hey Kaleigh, are you done with your advocacy now?  Is that it?  You got more to do, don't you?

KALEIGH BRENDLE:  There will always be more advocacy barriers in the way, but whenever I can, I strive to eliminate those.

MARK RICCOBONO:  Congratulations on your work and on becoming a member of the National Federation of the Blind.  We look forward to seeing much more of you in the future.  And thank you for organizing blind students.  Really tremendous.  Thank you for being here.