A federal district judge has ordered the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to provide an accessible write-in ballot (AWIB) to blind Pennsylvania voters for the June 2 primary election. The ruling is a victory for Joseph Drenth, a blind Chalfont resident, who fears going to his local polling place because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. Drenth’s immune system is slightly compromised, and his wife and mother-in-law, with whom he lives, both have asthma and complicating factors.
The Honorable Jennifer P. Wilson, district judge for the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, issued a temporary restraining order after a Wednesday hearing in the lawsuit that Mr. Drenth and the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania (NFB-PA) filed last week. The court’s order requires the state to provide blind voters with a list of the candidates on the ballot for their voting district along with an accessible electronic form on which they can type in their choices for each office. Blind Pennsylvania voters who wish to use the AWIB must request the accessible form by no later than 8:00 p.m. on Friday, May 29. Eligible voters must have applied for an absentee or mail-in ballot by the May 26, 2020, deadline and not yet have submitted a paper ballot. The AWIB must be submitted along with a declaration and a valid identification number. Voters must return their AWIB materials by first-class mail or hand-delivery to the County Board of Elector’s office in the voter’s jurisdiction by no later than 8:00 p.m. on June 2, 2020.
The lawsuit, which will continue in order to resolve the question of accessible absentee and mail-in ballot solutions for elections later this year, alleges violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The plaintiffs were represented by Disability Rights Pennsylvania and Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP.
“Although this temporary solution is not ideal, we commend Judge Wilson for ruling expeditiously, for making it clear that commonwealth officials must respect the rights of blind voters, and for recognizing that the status quo was unacceptable,” said Lynn Heitz, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania. “In light of this ruling and the judge’s clear direction at the hearing, we hope that the Commonwealth will work quickly with us to identify and implement a fully ADA-compliant voting solution for future elections.”
Raleigh, North Carolina (June 4, 2020): Duke University systematically discriminates against blind students and alumni in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, according to a lawsuit filed today. The action, brought by the National Federation of the Blind and Duke MBA Mary Fernandez, alleges that Duke failed to ensure that blind students can interact with digital content and platforms and access course materials—including hard-copy Braille materials and hard-copy tactile graphics when requested and appropriate—on an equal basis with students without disabilities.
According to the lawsuit, Plaintiff Mary Fernandez is a blind student who began the Duke Daytime MBA program in the fall of 2018. To read print, Ms. Fernandez uses screen access software, Job Access with Speech (“JAWS”), which vocalizes the text using synthesized speech or displays it on a connected device called a refreshable Braille display. For STEM subjects, Ms. Fernandez also uses hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics to better understand the complex concepts because refreshable Braille displays only display a single line of Braille cells at a time, and thus are not useful for complex equations, coordinate planes, diagrams, maps, and other graphics.
Ms. Fernandez met with the Assistant Director of Student Life before she enrolled and was assured Duke would provide the accommodations she needed to have equal access to her education. From the start, however, Ms. Fernandez experienced barriers that permeated every aspect of her educational experience. When she applied for admission, she encountered an inaccessible web-based application. When she registered online for courses, she could not access the course descriptions. When she utilized the employer recruiting system, she could not set up her user profile and could not utilize any of the search functions. In addition, Duke failed to provide Ms. Fernandez with timely access to accessible course materials, including hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics when she requested them. As a result, Ms. Fernandez was continually forced to divert her time and attention away from her studies to advocate for equal access to her education.
“Blind students must have access to course materials in accessible formats including Braille, along with equal access to digital platforms and content, at the same time as sighted students in order to have an equal opportunity to succeed,” said Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind. “This is not a new issue; it has been a focus of our advocacy for nearly two decades, and institutions of higher education have no excuse for not meeting this legal and moral obligation. The blind cannot and will not tolerate discrimination of this kind.”
“The failure to provide blind students with timely, accessible course materials and career services not only harms their educational experience, it puts their future career and economic self-sufficiency at risk,” said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, chief executive officer of Disability Rights North Carolina. “Duke University, in particular, has previously been sued by Disability Rights NC regarding the inaccessibility of its course materials and has the responsibility to know better and do better.”
“I expected an institution with Duke’s high standards and reputation to be able to meet my needs as a blind student and was assured that would happen,” said Ms. Fernandez. “Instead, my time at Duke has been something of a nightmare. I hope the action I am now taking will improve things for future blind students who want to attend Duke.”
The plaintiffs are represented by the attorneys of Disability Rights NC and the law firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP.
The NFB of Minnesota turns one hundred this year. To celebrate, an audio history of the accomplishments over that time has been put together. The audio is not currently available, but will be soon. The text version can be found at www.nfbmn.org/100 years.
Blind Students and Advocates Resolve Dispute with College Board over AP Exams
Students Will Receive Braille Exams, Tactile Graphics
Baltimore, Maryland (May 29, 2020): Kaleigh Brendle, a blind advanced-placement (AP) high school student from New Jersey, and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the nation’s leading advocate for the equal education of the blind, have resolved their dispute with the College Board over its administration of the advanced placement examinations to blind and deaf-blind students during the coronavirus pandemic. Ms. Brendle and the NFB filed complaints with the United States Department of Education and Department of Justice on behalf of themselves and four other named students, as well as the class of all other blind and deafblind students. The complaints alleged that the students’ rights were violated when the College Board instituted a digital-only format for the exams because of the pandemic and did not provide hard-copy Braille tests and/or hard-copy tactile graphics to students who had requested and been granted those accommodations. The complaints have been withdrawn in light of today’s resolution.
Without admitting wrongdoing, the College Board has agreed to allow certain students to retake AP exams using hard-copy tactile graphics (including charts, coordinate planes, diagrams, maps, etc.) and to administer hard-copy Braille tests to students who were already approved for Braille and who request to take or retake their exams with hard-copy Braille. Students will be able to take the Braille tests by September 15, 2020. For students who retake exams with hard-copy tactile graphics or hard-copy Braille, any prior answers or test scores will be disregarded. The College Board will also provide a letter to affected high school seniors explaining the delay in testing and scoring so that these seniors can provide that information to institutions of higher education.
In a separate letter not related to the complaints, the College Board has also agreed to consult with the National Federation of the Blind on procedures for administering the SAT and SAT subject tests to blind and deafblind students.
“My fellow blind and deafblind AP scholars and I never sought confrontation, compensation, or publicity. We desired only to receive fair treatment and to be provided with the materials we require in order to succeed,” said Kaleigh Brendle. “We raised our voices on behalf of those who could not, with the hope that every student who needed Braille would receive it. We are grateful to the College Board for listening to and understanding our concerns and working with us to institute change. Now, we can resume preparing for these influential exams and shaping our futures as empowered advocates of equality and opportunity.”
“It has been a privilege to work alongside these courageous students who raised their voices about the unfair treatment they received during an already stressful time,” said Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind. “This swift and equitable agreement exemplifies the power of collective action. We look forward to further cooperation and collaboration between the College Board and the organized blind movement to improve opportunities for all blind and deafblind scholars.”
Ms. Brendle and the National Federation of the Blind were represented by Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum and Kevin Docherty of Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP.
I pledge to participate actively in the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind to achieve equality, opportunity, and security for the blind; to support the policies and programs of the Federation; and to abide by its constitution.