by Gary Wunder
One of the most pressing issues facing the blind today is that it is difficult to receive an equal education, not to mention a quality education. This is true whether the difficulties face a blind student in elementary school trying to get Braille instruction, a high school student forbidden from taking a class because it is considered to be dangerous or too visual, or a college or university student attending a school where the instructional materials offered do not work efficiently (if at all) with screen-reading technology.
As you read the following article, hundreds of Federationists will be preparing to go to Washington, DC, to participate in meetings with members of Congress, and one of the issues they will discuss is the Technology, Education, and Accessibility in College and Higher Education (TEACH) Act. Articles about it have appeared in previous issues of the Braille Monitor, and more about the act is also found in this one. But beyond the abstract language of current law, the discussion about proposed guidelines, and what electronic gadgetry is and is not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, who are the people really affected by all of this? By the time you finish this article, you will know two of them, and never again will an article about inaccessible technology seem distant or unrelated to upholding the civil rights of blind people and providing equality of opportunity for the blind of America. You will meet two people whose lives will never be the same because of a university's refusal to make its software accessible and to ensure that the hardware it purchased was usable by blind people. All of this happened despite the requests, the pleas, and eventually the demands of two honor students who were forced to abandon their career goals, lose merit scholarships, and endanger the funding that is their right as citizens of Florida and the United States of America. Before telling their story, I want to acknowledge that this article is comprised of passages taken from legal briefs; settlement documents; spectacular quotes from Jamie Principato, one of the complainants advocating for her rights; and my own narrative, which tries to tie all of these elements together.
In 2008 Christopher Toth, a young honors student who was the salutatorian at his high school, entered Florida State University (FSU). So outstanding were his grades that his tuition and books were covered by merit scholarships. He classified himself as an amateur computer programmer, someone who wrote programs for fun, but he realized that his success in writing useful applications might lead to a rewarding career.
To obtain a bachelor's degree, Florida law requires every FSU student to complete successfully or test out of at least two college-level math courses by the end of the student's sophomore year. Half of these credits may be through the statistics department; the remainder must be earned from courses offered by FSU's department of mathematics. FSU will not permit a student to register for classes who has not received credit for two mathematics classes before the commencement of his or her junior year.
In August 2008, as an incoming freshman, Toth met with staff at the FSU Student Disability Resource Center (SDRC) to register as a student with a disability. As required, he completed an intake interview with Tim Ebener, an adviser at the SDRC. As standard procedure the SDRC developed an individual accommodation plan for Toth. In it the university was to alert his professors to the accommodations required for each class.
Toth's accommodation plan required a variety of classroom and testing accommodations, including that professors provide him with notes and handouts in electronic format prior to class sessions; copies of directions in auditory format; an in-class note taker, if requested; use of a tape recorder or laptop during class; accessible formats for tests; extended time on tests; and other accommodations. Because Toth's high ACT math score allowed him to skip more basic math courses, he enrolled in MAC 1140 (Pre-Calculus Algebra), a prerequisite for computer science courses, taught by Professor Mary Kutter. Given his previous success in this field, he anticipated no real problems with the course. He is a proficient Braille reader, and most would agree that mathematics is one course in which being able to see the problem in front of you is essential, whether that seeing is through the eyes to read print or through the fingers to read Braille. Professor Kutter announced on the first day of class that all students were to complete homework assignments and quizzes on the online eGrade system. eGrade is an online educational program used in math courses at FSU for homework, quizzes, and tests. Students solve problems presented online and submit their answers electronically. The beauty of the system for students is its ability to coach them as they learn. The advantage for instructors is that they do not have to grade each student's work. The advantage for both students and instructors is that grades are quickly available.
When Toth opened the assigned eGrade website for MAC 1140 to complete his homework, he discovered that it would not work with his screen reader. Instead of the screen reader saying what was on the screen and presenting the multiple-choice answers to him, it failed to verbalize the content of any of the questions or answers. Toth immediately sent an email to his professor explaining the situation. He also contacted Tim Ebener at the SDRC. Professor Kutter informed Toth that she would look into the situation, as did Mr. Ebener. eGrade is custom software developed by FSU, so changing it did not involve convincing a vendor or software developer outside the control of the institution to do the work required to make it accessible. Given his background in programming and knowledge of screen-reading systems, Toth could both demonstrate the problem and recommend code changes to address it.
During the first week of class Toth also requested that FSU provide him with the math textbook used by his fellow students. He asked that his copy be in Braille. FSU initially promised it but subsequently reneged. The university ultimately told Toth that, because the math textbook was not technically required for the course and because it could not easily be made accessible, he would have to do without it. The institution also breached its promise set forth in his accommodation plan, requiring Professor Kutter to provide him with notes in an accessible electronic format prior to the start of each class.
Rather than make accessible the eGrade homework, quizzes, and tests provided to sighted students, FSU proposed that Toth depend on someone with sight, who would read the materials aloud. Such a human reader is an ineffective and inadequate method for communicating this information. Jamie Principato, who would soon join Toth in the struggle for accessible instruction in mathematics, says: "The school had a testing center for persons with disabilities that had all of the accessible technology and equipment that we would need, but they didn't want us using it for math because the math department was reluctant to release any tests to the disability services department." As a result of FSU's refusal to make the MAC 1140 course accessible, its failure to provide a Braille textbook, and its failure to abide by Toth's accommodation plan, he was forced to drop the class and receive an "administrative drop."
Despite FSU's refusal to provide Toth with the necessary educational materials to pass MAC 1140, he was provided with accessible materials for his other courses, all of which he passed. In light of the lack of adequate accommodations for MAC 1140, he decided to enroll for the spring of 2009 in a less demanding class, MAC 1105, College Algebra, with Professor Penny LeNoir. Jamie Principato would join him in this class, and the treatment they received would be similar.
As soon as classes started, Toth discovered that the same textbook was used for MAC 1105 and MAC 1140. Despite his request, FSU again refused to provide him with the Braille book he needed for the course. FSU also continued to refuse to make eGrade accessible and, instead, again insisted that he use a human reader for homework, quizzes, and tests. As inadequate as this accommodation would have been, FSU even refused to pay for a reader, insisting that the expense be borne by Florida's Division of Blind Services (DBS).
By the time a reader was arranged, Toth had missed two weeks of course assignments and materials that had been available to his sighted peers. The reader FSU provided was a work-study student who had no mastery of the advanced math concepts needed to read or describe the course materials. The reader was made available for short periods only and at most came to read twice a week. When the reader was not available, Toth was forced to ask friends to log in to his account and read him the questions. As Principato observes, "When you are working with large polynomials and complex equations that the reader is trying to read to you, the outcome can be a disaster."
Because of FSU's failure to provide accessible materials or an effective accommodation, Toth had to drop the course. FSU recorded this as a "WDA," indicating that he had withdrawn from the course. Clearly this reflected negatively on his transcript and would, if unchallenged, tarnish his academic record and reduce opportunities for additional schooling and employment commensurate with his real skill and ability.
Not surprisingly, Toth grew increasingly discouraged and began to believe that he would be unable to major in computer science and would be unable to pursue the career that had long been his dream. His grades suffered, and he spent most of his time alone or talking on the phone to Principato.
Because he expended so much energy unsuccessfully on MAC 1105 and grew depressed and frustrated, his other grades suffered. The drop in his GPA meant that he lost his Bright Futures scholarship. During his freshman year DBS covered his living expenses. When his GPA dropped in the spring of 2009, his DBS counselor informed him that, unless he was able to demonstrate an ability to succeed in his courses during the summer, the agency would not fund his living expenses or provide tuition assistance. During the summer term Toth enrolled in PSY2012, General Psychology and SOP3004, Social Psychology. He received accessible textbooks and course materials for each course and received an A in each class. DBS then agreed to pay for his coursework, and Mr. Toth enrolled for the fall of 2009.
Jamie Principato entered FSU in the fall of 2009. She too had an agreement with the university's Student Disability Resource Center, but, when it came to accommodations in mathematics, the SRDC was no advocate. "I always got the impression when I talked with disability services that they weren't trying very hard. I hate to make that accusation, but they always seemed to be very passive in their communications with the math department. When I was able to read the email transcripts between them, their attitude in talking with the math department seemed to be that ‘We know you don't want to do this, but we would certainly like it if you did.’ Never did their communication say, ‘This is university policy, and we expect you to work with us to see that these blind students get the materials and instruction they need.’"
As with Toth, the mathematics department refused to honor Principato's SDRC-issued accommodation plan that allowed her to take weekly exams at the SDRC Testing Center. At the testing center she could have used ZoomText to magnify the test. Instead she was consigned either to a cramped room in the math department that was equipped with four computers that did not have ZoomText software or, in the case of the final exam, to the math department's faculty kitchen, where she attempted to concentrate while teachers ate and chatted. The mathematics department gave Principato paper copies of the tests, requiring her to use a hand-held magnifier to read the questions and record her answers. The department's testing room was poorly lit, and she had to sit and work between two computers that left her workspace completely in shadow, making it even more difficult for her to see the test questions. As a result she was unable to read many of them. In addition to the unequal opportunity they were given to take quizzes and tests, both Principato and Toth were denied the opportunity to participate with their sighted peers in quiz preparation sessions. These sessions occurred in the classroom on test days immediately before the examinations. Both were told that on testing days they had to report directly to the math department testing room. On a few occasions Professor Blackwelder [their mathemathic instructor] spent a few minutes with Ms. Principato reviewing math concepts and problems before her quiz began, but, because Professor Blackwelder used a pen and paper to illustrate the math problems, Ms. Principato could not see them, meaning the review was not effective. Professor Blackwelder also used PRS Transmitters, a brand of clickers, to take attendance for class and to award bonus points. Although another company sold accessible clickers, FSU acquired inaccessible clickers, thus preventing Principato and Toth from earning bonus points as their sighted peers could.
But Toth and Principato knew that the lack of accommodations by the university did not free them from trying to implement solutions of their own devising. "While we were in the class, we made some effort to try to fix the problem ourselves. We couldn't make the software accessible, but we tried to find workarounds. I tried, for example, to find videos on the Internet of the math concepts we were supposed to be learning in class so that maybe we could at least learn the material. I would listen to those videos, replaying them over and over again, until I could actually write a transcript that would be useful as math notes. It got to the point where I was spending something like six to seven hours at least three times a week transcribing these videos and trying to make notes that both Chris and I could read and could use to study since we could not use the software and weren't getting notes for class. I was spending more time on this than I was spending in class, and it was exhausting! It was more effort than I was putting into any of my other classes, and I was still failing.
"We tried to get materials to make the graphs in our class more accessible, because, even though they were providing readers for tests, they still didn't have a solution for the graphs and the images on them. These were just being described, and not very well at that.
"So we got to be crafty—not crafty as in scheming but crafty as in creating what we needed using commonly available things. We got some wax-covered string and Braille paper and tried to make graphs as best we could from these materials to show the people in the math department how they could do it to help us with the tests. They weren't willing to do that, so again this was money and time and resources that we were putting into this, and we still weren't getting enough out of it. We still weren't actually learning the material. We couldn't follow along in class, we were missing homework assignments, we were failing quizzes, we were not getting any of the material, and, when we would go to our professor and try to negotiate some kind of arrangement with her where we could use more of the resources from disability services, she made it clear she was not interested. The more we communicated with the department, the more hostile the communication became. Eventually we got to the point where we were going up the ladder to the head of undergraduate mathematics. We explained the issue to him; he went to the people in the department, got their side of the story, wrote back to us and said that it sounded to him like we weren't trying hard enough. He also made the point that I was not blind because I had some vision.
"Even though we could see that we were going to fail the class, dropping it would mean that we would lose funding. The Florida Division of Blind Services was paying my tuition, and they strongly frown upon dropping classes late in the semester because it meant that they would lose money. They refuse to pay for classes that a student has already tried to take once and failed or dropped." This would later be a point of contention between the legal team from the NFB and the rehabilitation agency in Florida.
"At this point I felt like I was running out of options—I was really starting to feel trapped," Principato said. "This one class was going to derail all the plans for my future and my career."
Toth and Principato each received a grade of D in MAC 1105, which is not a passing grade. "After I completed the semester I was removed from the honors program at the school," she says. "This was truly upsetting because my grades and the accompanying recognition of them were going to be my gateway into a research career. At the same time I was removed from the honors program, DBS was warning that they too would curtail my funding." The mathematics department's intentional refusal to provide accessible materials was the reason these two students found their support and career goals at risk, and this could not stand.
Failing to get any satisfaction in accommodations, Toth and Principato began looking for ways to make their plight known to others in the system. "We started looking for a grievance policy; we thought that maybe there was somebody higher up in the university or in the math department we could go to who could make them move and make them do what they needed to do. But we couldn't find anything, at least not on the university's website or in documentation available at their offices. Nothing would tell us how to deal with this issue.
“In my English class we had a project to do a research paper or an exposé on a topic, and I decided to do mine on what was going on at the math department at FSU. I figured that I was doing this research anyway and spending a lot of time trying to figure it out, so I might as well make this my English project. My thought was that in this way I would be able to draw attention to what was going on in other departments. I felt that maybe that would be a good move; maybe somebody else could give me some resources and help me figure out where to look for advice and help. I remember, when my English teacher was grading that paper, that he was really impressed with it and surprised to see what was actually happening at FSU. As part of my research for the paper, I used the lack of information that I was able to find on FSU's website about grievances. I cited disability law, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and I used examples of inaccessible materials throughout the university, but especially in the math department. My English professor told me that I should consider sending it to the Tallahassee Democrat, the local newspaper, and see if they could help. I didn't do that because I didn't want to draw so much attention to myself at the time. I didn't want this to become a publicity thing; I just wanted the issues to get fixed."
Even as they tried to avoid a public relations fight with the university, Toth and Principato did start looking outside the university for ways they could make changes happen, and that's when they found the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the United States Department of Education. They learned that they could file a complaint against the governing board of FSU, and, shortly before Christmas of 2010, this is what they did.
They were soon contacted by OCR and an attorney interviewed them by telephone. They were told that they could file a class-action complaint against the university. It would be on behalf of all students affected by the lack of accessibility. They agreed to file the complaint as the lawyer suggested and hoped things would change for them and other blind students. But, as exciting as this change might eventually prove to be, the reality for Principato and Toth was still bleak: lost scholarships, no honors program, and the threat that even the vocational rehabilitation agency would abandon them.
To their shock and surprise the Office for Civil Rights told Principato and Toth that it could do nothing about the situation in which they found themselves because what they had filed was a class-action complaint that could not address individual issues. The findings could be and were used to force the university to make changes, but the OCR’s influence would not alter anything these students faced as a result of the university’s failure to make reasonable accommodations for them.
At this point Principato and Toth decided to get a bit more vocal on their own behalf. "We tweeted a lot. Chris has a lot of presence on Twitter, and I have a lot of friends on Facebook. We wrote a lot about the issues. We posted to mailing lists about the issues. We posted to the National Federation of the Blind's student mailing list. We just tried to get the word out as much as we possibly could, because the more people who knew about it, the more people who might be able to help us find a solution and help us continue with our studies," Principato said.
Through these activities the two were put in touch with Mark Riccobono and explained their situation. "We told him we had gone as far as we knew how to go, and we were still flunking out and weren't going to be able to continue because of the math class. That's when he put us in touch with the National Federation of the Blind legal defense team, and we started talking about the possibility of actually filing a lawsuit.
"Suddenly this was getting really big really fast, and, while that was scary, it was also a relief at the same time because we knew we were in the right, we knew we were being wronged by our university, we knew that we weren't being given equal access, and we knew that something had to happen if we were to do anything about it."
Toth and Principato began working with Brown, Goldstein & Levy in the fall of 2010. Getting the legal team the information they needed was easier because both students had realized early on that keeping copies of emails and other documents would be important in making their case to university officials. "We soon figured out that the professors were going to say one thing to us and something else to another department. For this reason we started saving emails and other documents. Once we filed the lawsuit, a lot of things changed for us at the university. We learned that Brown, Goldstein & Levy were going to have access to our email, and that was fine. Every time we got a message from FSU or sent a message to someone at FSU, we had to share it with them too. This was all during the discovery period. They wanted to see all of our Facebook and Twitter information because they knew we had been talking a lot about what was going on there. It got to the point where every time we would communicate with anybody on campus, we needed to take notes and contact Mr. Goldstein afterward and let him know what had happened. Every communication we had with faculty on campus was essentially related—it was always going to be about accessibility."
Officials at FSU soon adopted the posture that any meetings they would have with Toth, with Principato, or with them together would require a second party from the university to observe and relate the content of discussions. "Filing a lawsuit changes the dynamic between a student and a professor. You can't talk with your professor without somebody acting as a witness and making sure that they have everything documented on their end too. It makes things very difficult."
Soon even those who should have been advocates in the SRDC were siding with the math department. Principato says: "I would call it interesting now, but at the time it was frustrating to see factions forming within the university. I started to notice that there were people in the disability service office who were acting as though we were their enemy. They were especially hostile to us. They would try to get us into situations where we would say things that weren't true. They would try to get us to agree with them that we weren't trying hard enough. They would try to tell other people that we weren't trying hard enough and that the problems were really just us complaining too much about little things. I don't really have words to describe it—it was just terrible."
Although there are laws against retaliating against students who file complaints, there can be no question that those complaining face greater scrutiny. Toth and Principato both witnessed this when any mistake they made in working with the SRDC was documented. Bringing a document for transcription an hour late would have initially resulted in a reminder about deadlines, but, after the filing of the suit, such incidents were magnified. Not only were Principato and Toth under greater scrutiny, but being in an adversarial relationship with their school changed how they felt about it and about being students there. Principato says, "We didn't really have much of a social life on campus after the lawsuit because we couldn't really talk with our fellow students about these matters. Neither could we walk around the campus and feel proud that we were at FSU. We couldn't go out on game day and take pride in our school. We didn't feel pride in our school; we didn't feel welcome at our school.
"This got worse and worse as the discovery period dragged on. We were aware of communications our attorney had with people at FSU and with FSU's legal counsel, and all of the communication really was that we were in the wrong and that we weren't trying hard enough or that we didn't need what we claimed we needed. There was always something to try to make us look bad. But like we were being attacked from every angle: we were the plaintiffs; they were the defendants, so it was definitely not what we expected.
"As I look back on it now, I look at what we had as extra homework. At the end of the school day we'd have to go and call up their paralegals to go over documents with them; fill out forms with them; help them find documents that we mentioned but that hadn't yet been produced by FSU — documents they needed to see to start preparing an argument. It was like we were taking law classes on top of the classes we were already taking, and, looking back on it, it was a great learning experience. But it was really stressful in addition to the stress of just being in college."
Following discovery came depositions, and Principato and Toth were shocked and surprised once again. "We got to read all of the depositions that the FSU faculty and staff and the SRDC had done, and they lied. It kind of blew me away that, on top of all of these issues that we already had pretty well documented because of the findings of the Office for Civil Rights, the people from our disability services were saying they offered things they had not offered, saying we said things we did not say, and pretending we were getting accommodations we were not getting. Here we were, once again in a math class we had taken a year before, and the class notes were coming two weeks after the material we had been taught and had already been tested on. They did give us an electronic textbook, and, although this was of some help, it too came late and came in pieces, often after we had covered and been given exams on the material."
Finally there came a time when FSU wanted to discuss mediation. Toth and Principato thought this was good. "If we could stay out of the courts, I was thinking this would be better for everybody involved. We were discussing settlement terms, and the thing that was a huge issue, the thing that mattered most to Chris and me during the mediation, was that the problems would be fixed for everybody. We didn't want to settle the lawsuit and have nothing more be said about it and then have some blind student, long after us—maybe a couple years down the line—run into the same problem as though they [the school] had forgotten what had happened. So we spent something like eighteen hours in mediation discussing our terms and arguing over what had to be fixed. We were really happy that we settled on terms that resulted in all of the math classes and the materials used for them being made accessible, as well as chemistry and biology and physics classes. We worked hard not only on math but on these other classes, because eventually these were all ones we would have to take. We also insisted that the grievance policy for the university, especially for discrimination complaints, be made publicly available and easy to find. We insisted that the resources in the disability student service center be made more accessible and easier for blind students to view on the internet."
We asked Principato whether, after mediation, the university was interested in removing those failing grades from the transcripts of her and Toth. "Selectively. They did remove most of the failing grades that we received. The only thing I think they didn't remove were the withdrawals, which aren't so bad because they don't affect your GPA, but they do show that you took a class and withdrew from it. I don't think they provide any reason."
When asked if there was any part of the settlement she wished had been different, Principato said, "In the FSU settlement one of the provisions is that FSU admits to no wrongdoing. I wasn't happy about that one, but our legal counsel explained to me that, when you are settling out of court, you are not usually going to get much better than this. The defendants are willing to agree to fix it, but they are not willing to agree that they did wrong."
We asked Principato how the Division of Blind Services in Florida reacted to the settlement and whether at any point they ever became an advocate for Toth and Principato.
"No they didn't. They didn't really have a lot of interest in taking a side. They would forgive a couple of things like when we had to take a math class over again, and, with some pushing from Dan Goldstein and his legal people, they agreed to pay for me to take the class over again, even though it is their policy that a student doesn't get to retake a class. Other than that they didn't want to be involved. They didn't want to help much, and they certainly weren't an advocate. If anything, they were an external stressor in addition to FSU—just another institution we had to worry about."
When asked why she thought DBS would not help two of its students in what was clearly an inaccessible and increasingly hostile environment, Principato said, "Our Division of Blind Services counselor had an office in the university's disability services office, and she would be there a couple of days a week. When I was in there using resources or scheduling with them on those days, I noticed that she was very much a part of that office. She was very politically sensitive to the things that took place in that office, and I think she was more an ally to them than to us."
In contrast to her feelings about the Division of Blind Services in Florida and its role in events, Principato came away from the fight with a new and fervent enthusiasm for the NFB and the legal team of Brown, Goldstein & Levy. "I feel like, if not for the support I got in fighting this battle, it never would have been fought, I probably wouldn't be in school right now, and I definitely wouldn't be in Colorado living a better life. I would probably have moved back with my parents or something. I can't really imagine what my future would've been like from that point if it hadn't been for Dan, if not for the legal team, and if not for the National Federation of the Blind funding this. I can honestly say that Dan is absolutely my hero, and his entire legal team is a bunch of superheroes. They do amazing things for people, and they do it well. We need people like that fighting the good fight.
"My life is great now, and I actually attribute that to what happened at FSU, the help of the NFB and their legal team and what they gave me to take away from the whole situation. I moved to Colorado, and, though some course credits transferred to Arapahoe, essentially I found myself starting out as a freshman. At this point what really hit me was that the only reason I had originally chosen psychology to begin with was that I thought that as a blind student I was going to struggle in any science field that required a lot of math. Then at FSU I ran into a problem in psychology because it too required math. So I said to myself that if I could compromise and still run into problems, then maybe I shouldn't be compromising at all and should just take on the obstacles head on. Maybe I should do what I really wanted to do, even if that meant science and math.
"So in my first semester at Arapahoe Community College, I just took my math class to see if I would find the same problems all over again. If I did, I would get out of it quickly before I made too great an investment. Of course there was the possibility that it might be different—I hoped that it would be—and it was different. I had a lot of support from my school and from my teachers. I actually did great in my algebra class and discovered a love of math that I didn't realize I had. That made me start thinking, "If I can take on FSU and essentially win that battle, I can probably do anything, and I'd like to study math as my career, or at least physics—and that requires a lot of math." So I am a physics major now, and I'm doing really well. The attitude of those who are supposed to teach us makes all the difference. When I started at this college, they told me pretty honestly that they were willing to help me and would do everything to make sure that these classes were accessible, but straight up they said that they wanted to warn me that they had never had a blind student excel past the first calculus class. At the end of this academic year they will be telling teachers and future students that they have had a blind student take every math class they have to offer and succeed at it, and I'm really excited about that."
Principato plans to transfer to a four-year college once she has completed her associate degree. She is currently considering the University of Denver, the Colorado School of Minds, and the University of Colorado, Denver Campus.
In reading this, one might be tempted to ask what has caused us to run an article about events that happened nearly five years ago? The answer is that a recent letter seemed so compelling that we did the work you have already read and thought you would want to know how at least one of our defendants now regards what was once her most serious challenge—mathematics. Here is what she wrote to Daniel Goldstein, and, after reading it, you can see why he sent the letter with this comment: “I am sharing the email below from Jamie Principato, who joined Chris Toth as our plaintiffs when we sued Florida State. Jamie was a nineteen-year-old freshman who had the presence of mind to file a complaint with the Department of Education without assistance; the Department of Ed did nothing until we came in. When I read something like this, I think I should be paying you for the privilege of working for the NFB. What a difference we made in just one life! I am standing a little straighter and taller today after reading this.”
Here is the letter Jamie wrote to Dan:
Subject: First time looking back
Good morning, Dan,
I am on my way to the University of Denver this morning to give a talk at a conference of disability services specialists from institutions throughout the state of Colorado. The conference was arranged in light of a recent discrimination lawsuit filed against CU Boulder, and its focus is on avoiding litigation, which makes me feel a little nauseated every time I say it out loud. That said, I was invited to speak at this conference to give its attendants a look at litigation from the student's perspective, as well as to discuss ways in which a university can be proactive about accessibility (as opposed to simply reacting to the threat of legal action) and to highlight the difference that the right attitudes can make even when unforeseen circumstances do arise.
In the weeks leading up to this event, I was asked a lot about my experiences at FSU, and in preparation for today's talk I went and dug out the settlement agreement, as well as the initial complaint. It occurred to me that I haven't looked at either of these documents since they were first written, and I felt a twinge of anger more than once as I recalled conversations with faculty, phone calls to DBS, and visits to the SDRC. I remembered the events that took place at FSU very well, but forgot much of what it was like to be there. If I hadn't been there, I don't know if I would have believed most of what I read in the complaint, and this gave me empathy for the group I'll be addressing today. It's hardest to believe that these events didn't take place very long ago.
It's really strange to think back to a time when doing math meant feeling depressed and angry and frustrated; when walking around in the math department of my school meant high anxiety and a sense that I had to be on guard and defensive; when the thing I now consider to be the most beautiful thing in the universe, the stuff that holds it all together, was the stuff of nightmares for me. These days math is my deepest passion. I've been out of school for the summer, spending my break studying general relativity, abstract algebra, knot theory and multivariable calculus…for fun! I meet with my best friend and mentor, a mathematician, several times a week just to play with math and bounce around ideas. We're working together to use math to design a computer vision system that will allow a robot we've built to autonomously tend and harvest a potted plant (the application isn't important, though. We're using math to give a robot visual decision-making capabilities!). On the side, my friend is mentoring me as I try to find an algorithm that will allow a computer to recognize visually the algebraic properties of 3-D knots rendered down to 2-D photographs (this has applications in microbiology, where proteins can be identified by their mathematical knot-like qualities, and it's an open-ended problem in knot theory that hasn't been solved yet).
The math department at my school is like a second home to me, and my teachers and mentors are as far from adversaries as can be. Most notably, this subject that used to cause me the most grief and stress is now my go-to for relief when I'm stressed. I write proofs and work novel problems in the morning as soon as I wake up. If I have to be up at seven for school, I wake up at five so I have time for this. Before I go to bed every night, I read a theorem or lemma or an article in some mathematician's blog to unwind. When my computer broke the other day while I was in the middle of an important project, I did algebra to cool down before trying to find another way to finish the work. Math went from the thing I hated most for most of my life to the thing I turned out to be fairly good at, and now it's the thing I love most and couldn't do without. When I think about it like that, all that fighting and grief in Tallahassee were more than worth it.
UPDATE: I wrote this email this morning while I was getting ready for the conference, and my colleague came to pick me up before I could send it. I'm home now and just wanted to add that my presentation was a huge success. I got the impression from those who approached me afterwards that I accomplished the goal of helping them understand litigation from the student's perspective, what motivates a student to take such steps, and how the right attitude and culture within an institution can make all the difference in preventing such things. People who complained openly at the start of the conference about the cost and burden of accessibility audits to their department or of having to distribute their "intellectual property" when a student needs accessible notes were actively thanking me for helping them at the end of the talk to see the error in their reasoning. I was even invited back for another conference in October to give a more focused presentation on math accessibility in higher education.
Since I hadn't sent this message yet, I thought you'd like to hear that the talk went well. I'm doing great now, academically speaking, but I haven't lost sight of the challenges my peers still face and will continue to do what I can to educate those around me, students and faculty alike.