Braille Monitor                         August/September 2020

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

by Kaleigh Brendle

Kaleigh BrendleFrom the Editor: Kaleigh is a rising high school senior. College is expensive and time-consuming. One way to make the experience less so is to take advanced placement tests to show that there are college courses one does not need to take. When accommodations to provide the Advanced Placement test were going to be suspended with COVID-19 given as the reason, Kaleigh, then a junior in high school, said no and started organizing and complaining. Here is what she says:

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 seventeen years old, and I'm a rising senior in the Scholar Center for the Humanities Program housed at Howell High School. Since birth, I’ve possessed a condition called Lebers Congenital Amaurosis, 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 my 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 at the end 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 curricula and final exams for these courses are created and administered by an organization called the College Board. This organization also presides over various other influential standardized tests, including the SAT.

This past year, I opted to take four AP courses. I submitted my accommodation plan, in which I requested that my exams be provided in hard-copy Braille. For such visual courses as AP Biology, that also meant that any diagrams or graphics would be tactually produced for me. I requested the common accommodation of “Breaks as Needed," to prevent such factors as eyestrain or finger fatigue from interfering in my performance. I was granted all of these accommodations.
Since accommodation plans apply 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. The College Board announced that it was shortening and digitizing its exams with no intent to provide blind and deaf-blind students with Braille. Its 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 by reading the description. College Board’s website informed me that 65 percent of my AP Biology exam score would be dependent upon my ability to successfully interpret and analyze a single graphic. If this were a lab, whose data was expressed in an XY-coordinate plane with multiple lines for the experimental and control groups or other experimental 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 deaf-blind 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 any time it took me to resolve an issue with my technology would count against me in terms of my exam completion time. If I had an hour to complete an exam and assistive technological glitches ate up forty-five minutes, I would have fifteen minutes to test. I could, of course, request a makeup, but if my devices were to glitch during that makeup, I would have no more opportunities to test. The suggestion that I received from both that representative and multiple College Board executives was, "Use a device with less problems." No one can forsee when technology will malfunction; I found that suggestion absurd and slightly offensive.

At this point I desired to see if any other blind students I knew were experiencing this. I released a video to social media in which I explained the problem, and it currently possesses almost 90,000 views. TVIs, parents, media reporters, and students began contacting me. Some students were unaware that this was even a problem. Some had figured it out but, like me, they were unsure if anyone else was enduring this. Many felt alone and exhausted from constantly fighting for their needs to be met, so I orchestrated a Zoom call for just students, where we could all express our feelings. It was a powerful experience for all of us. Nicolas Spohn, 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 the College Board. It was great to know that other blind students also believe that our accommodations should not be reduced or eliminated during this pandemic.”

At the same time, I was contacting the US Department of Education 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 Krevor-Weisbaum, a managing partner of the Brown, Goldstein & Levy law firm. With the experience of both of these individuals and my knowledge of the situation, we began assembling the documentation necessary to file a class complaint. Four other students, Christopher Abel, Ryan Menter, Nicolas Spohn, and Mitchell Smedley signed on as complainants. "The Americans with Disabilities Act was created with the intent of providing students with an equal opportunity on standardized and AP exams,” asserted Ryan Menter, one of the aforementioned complainants intent on pursuing a children's rights 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 could 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 in this fight was a necessity.” And he’s exactly right. Even after we filed, we still did everything in our power to compromise. As the complaint was submitted, I worked with Chris Danielsen, the public relations director of the 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 from major media outlets such as Fox News and the New York Times. That very same day we cross-filed with the US 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 thanks to the Speaker [Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke previously at this convention]), 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 the College Board could provide the exams, his staff would produce the Braille. But the College Board wouldn’t. Apparently, what it was concerned about was security. It was fearful of us cheating. The NFB and I shared the many solutions it could implement to ensure that that wouldn’t happen, but it would not listen.

Finally, the College Board 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 consisted of Dr. Shaheen; technology specialist Matt Hackert; Valerie Yingling; Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum; Kevin Docherty, an esteemed disability rights advocate associated 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 with 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 breakthrough was directly to the students. Throughout the entire process, I always kept the students informed, hosting recap calls every step of the way. The relief and joy on that call was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Christopher Abel, another plaintiff whose passions lie in finance, had this to say about that incredible announcement: "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 fullfill our needs than to fight to exclude us. I was certainly relieved to learn that our battle had finally reached its conclusion. I was proud to work with 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, which you can read on NFB's website, any student, regardless of whether they had already taken their exams with College Board’s improper accommodations, would be eligible to receive a hard-copy Braille exam in September. On May 29, we withdrew our complaints, the press release was issued, and the College Board began to fulfill its 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 if they strive to do so. This is an assertion that complainant Mitchell Smedley, a future broadcast journalist, firmly believes: “It doesn’t stop with College Board. Blind people will face challenges and inequalities at virtually every turn." He added, “Don’t sit idly by." And I agree. Every voice is powerful, and 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.

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