by Kerstin Sjoberg-Witt and Michael L. Stack II
From the Editor: This article is reprinted from the spring issue of the Buckeye Bulletin, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio. Here is how it was introduced by Editor Barbara Pierce:
Editor’s Note: Kerstin Sjoberg-Witt, the director of advocacy and assistant executive director at Disability Rights Ohio, is an Ohio attorney with over ten years of experience advocating for the civil rights of all individuals. Michael Stack, a graduate law clerk at Disability Rights Ohio, is a recently minted Florida attorney currently pursuing his Ohio license while participating in a fellowship program created by his law school.
Imagine you’re sitting down for the first time in a pre-calculus or calculus class. Imagine the fear you feel as you read concept material that is supposed to be written in English but appears to be ancient Greek combined with Egyptian hieroglyphics. As you tell yourself that advanced mathematics is an academic field fraught with mental hurdles and the bane of most high school and college students, you start to feel a little better. Now imagine that in addition to the difficulty of the subject matter itself, there is another hurdle your sighted peers do not experience: you are blind and need to have math problems read to you by screen-reader software. But instead of reading the problems to you in a coherent manner, parts of the equations are read out of order or with unfamiliar code for math symbols or are simply missing information altogether—making it impossible for you even to figure out what problem to solve, let alone learn the material.
This is the kind of obstacle that Aleeha Dudley, a twenty-year-old junior at Miami University, faces every day as she vigorously pursues an undergraduate degree in zoology. Dudley, current vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio’s student division, has hopes of becoming one of the nation’s few blind veterinarians. Because Miami has failed to make necessary modifications to its course materials that would allow equal access to the electronic and tactile materials used in and out of the classroom, Dudley has not had the same opportunity as her sighted peers to learn, and her grades do not reflect her actual capabilities. As her grades continue to suffer because of inaccessible course materials, her dream of being accepted into veterinary school and practicing equine medicine suffers along with them. Dudley’s struggle is only part of a problem that is persistent throughout Ohio and the rest of the country: equal access to technology in the digital age.
For years organizations like the National Federation of the Blind and Disability Rights Ohio have been fighting to promote equal access for all blind people. In the past most barriers that resulted in the denial of equal opportunity in education, employment, community life, transportation, and recreation were barriers of a physical nature. For instance, there has been an incredible amount of litigation over the last few decades related to physical access to buildings, such as construction of sidewalk cutaways and access ramps. Given the rapid advance of technology used in everyday life, inaccessible digital content is a relatively new barrier to equality for blind people. Just as missing signs, unnecessary steps, and false walls would make it difficult to navigate a building, accessibility problems with technology make navigating, searching, and reading even the most basic digital content extremely difficult and in some cases impossible.
For Dudley, who filed a lawsuit against Miami University in January for discrimination based on her disability, the lack of accessible course materials and educational technology has denied her an equal opportunity to learn in an effective and integrated manner alongside her sighted peers, which is required by both the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Not only does Dudley have issues accessing Miami’s educational material (for example, her online homework,) but simple daily activities such as doing laundry and ordering food at the cafeteria are also being hindered by Miami’s use of touchscreen devices that are inaccessible to blind students. While lack of access to technology is a problem afflicting students from schools around the country, several universities are making huge strides to provide equal access through comprehensive plans and initiatives, such as Oregon State University, Florida State University, and the University of Montana. In March, for example, the University of Montana and the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reached a collaborative agreement highlighting the need for policies and procedures to ensure that all students, faculty, and staff, including those with disabilities, can independently use electronic and information technologies.
Not only do inaccessible technology and communication affect the education system, but they also create frustrating and unnecessary barriers to the provision of basic necessities like housing. Renee Jordan, a resident of Dayton, Ohio, has recently filed a lawsuit against Greater Dayton Premier Management and its predecessor, Dayton Metropolitan Housing Authority, alleging violations of the Fair Housing Amendments Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Jordan, who is blind, cannot read written correspondence related to her participation in the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which is administered by the local housing authority and funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Because a participant who fails to keep appointments or complete necessary paperwork on time may be terminated from the Voucher Program, Jordan requested that all correspondence be sent on microcassette tape so she could independently access the correspondence and respond appropriately. The housing authority refused, claiming the request was unreasonable and an undue financial and administrative burden. On March 28, 2014, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio granted Jordan’s motion for preliminary injunction and ordered the housing authority to provide her all correspondence on microcassette tapes while litigation proceedings were ongoing. The court recognized that federal law “guarantees not only equal access to information about a program, but equal access to the program itself,” and the only way a blind person has an equal opportunity to participate in and enjoy the benefits of a federal program is when “all communication affecting continued participation in the program is provided in an accessible format.”
Many universities, housing authorities, and other public and private entities argue that limited resources prevent the provision of accessible technology. While limited resources can be a concern, especially given the ongoing budget cuts facing many public and private entities, a shortage of resources is not sufficient justification for a blanket denial of equal access for people with disabilities. In Jordan’s case the court recognized that the cost of providing reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act is a concern that all federally-funded and public programs face. The court held, however, that “[a]ccommodating the needs of individuals with disabilities in order to provide them with equal access . . . is a cost that must be borne” unless it creates an undue burden that severely harms the program.
In an age where cell phones talk to you, cars drive themselves, and thermostats are practically self-aware, technology should benefit the blind, not create new barriers. While advances in technology have the power to make adapting to visual impairment immensely better, certain technology actually creates greater inequality when that technology is inaccessible to people with disabilities. As technology becomes more and more integrated into our society—relied upon in the everyday world for even the most rudimentary tasks—we must fight even harder to provide equal access to people with disabilities. Individuals who are blind or visually impaired have the same right as a sighted person to full access to technology, and we should not ignore the effect the digital world has on how we access information today.