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Lawsuits, Settlements & Other Legal News

As High-Tech Teaching Catches on, Students with Disabilities Can Be Left Behind

February 25, 2015
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

Educational innovations like the flipped classroom, clickers, and online discussions can present difficulties for students with disabilities.

The issue was highlighted this month, when Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were sued for allegedly failing to provide such students with closed captioning for online lectures and course materials.

Peter Blanck, chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University and author of eQuality: The Struggle for Web Accessibility by Persons With Cognitive Disabilities (Cambridge University Press, 2014), said blind and deaf students need to be considered when shifting core parts of teaching to the Internet.

"So far, itís been kind of an incremental struggle by persons with disabilities to have full and equal access to the web," he said.

Though many colleges have set up procedures for converting traditional teaching materials, like printed textbooks, into accessible formats for students with disabilities, colleges are still figuring out how to adapt online materials. Mr. Blanck recalled the struggles of blind students he wrote about in his book. Courtney, for example, couldnít take classes that required significant library research, and Blair couldnít read certain texts for his physics classes.

"Presumably, universities should be at the forefront of these changes," Mr. Blanck said.

Here are some of the teaching methods and technologies that present new challenges to students with disabilities.

Videos and Flipped Classrooms

The flipped-classroom model, in which students are asked to watch video lectures outside of class, is catching on. A recent survey of professors found that 46 percent had tried or adopted the approach. Assignments that direct students to watch videos are popular, too. But classroom flipping and video viewing can present problems for students with disabilities, particularly those who are deaf.

The National Association of the Deaf has received complaints from students who were assigned to watch videos that are inaccessible, said Andrew S. Phillips, a lawyer with the association, by email.

Some professors respond to the problem promptly and personally, captioning the videos themselves, he said. Others submit the videos to their universityís internal system for captioning, though that process can take a while and cause students to lag behind. But sometimes, students are expected to just figure it out themselves or, worse, be excused from the exercise, a solution that Mr. Phillips called "just leaving them out of an important learning opportunity."

Christian P. Vogler, director of the technology-access program at Gallaudet University, an institution for [students with hearing impairments] in Washington, D.C., said he would not use videos without captions. That policy can be limiting, he said, but itís important that he lead by example. "When Iím looking for any video, thatís a requirement," he said through an interpreter. "The first thing I check is to make sure itís captioned."

Another problem, he said, is textbooks with accompanying videos that lack captions. Mr. Vogler said more pressure should be applied to publishers to make all of their educational materials accessible.

Rather than adding captions to videos upon request, Mr. Phillips said, the association would like captioning of online lectures and other course materials to be standard practice. It would promote accessibility and spare students from having to request accommodations, which may be uncomfortable for some of them.

Mr. Vogler said putting captions on videos would also make it easier to create transcripts for blind students.


Asking students to answer questions in class via clickers can also present problems for students who are blind or deaf.

In 2012, Florida State University settled a lawsuit brought by two blind students who said their mathematics class used inaccessible technology, including clickers. The students received $75,000 each in the settlement.

In classes where clickers are used on a competitive basis or where students are given a limited amount of time to submit their answers, deaf students are at a disadvantage. Even with efficient translation, thereís often a lag time, and it may cause students who are deaf to submit their answers more slowly, Mr. Phillips said.

For deaf students, the problem can be easily solved by giving a sufficient amount of time for everyone to respond, Mr. Phillips said.

Digitized Readings

Digitized reading materials that professors provide to students are not always compatible with software that blind students rely on to read text to them on a computer.

The PDF format can be particularly difficult. Mr. Vogler said he and others who conduct accessibility-related research avoid PDFs. The scholars try to make everything accessible to students who are blind or have low vision by screen reader, often providing a Microsoft Word document in addition to PDFs when they must be used.

"Sometimes I just wish that PDFs had never been invented," he said. "I know that itís causing a lot of problems."

Copyright regulations can also thwart efforts to make digitized works and videos accessible to people with disabilities. However, Mr. Vogler said, the fair-use doctrine should allow such works to be reproduced in a format accessible to [students with disabilities], without violating copyright law.

Syracuseís Mr. Blanck cited the Authors Guild Inc. v. HathiTrust lawsuit as a positive step toward making digitized works accessible to students with disabilities. A number of colleges teamed up with Google to create a digital library called the HathiTrust Digital Library, but the Authors Guild said digitizing the works constituted copyright infringement. HathiTrust won the lawsuit and was allowed to digitize the texts and make them accessible to people with print-related disabilities.

Class Blogs and Discussion Boards

In some courses, students are asked to regularly post on a class discussion board or blog. In those forums, students sometimes post links to videos or other content that may not be accessible to their classmates with disabilities, Mr. Blanck said.

Discussion boards were just one of the problems listed in a complaint of disability discrimination submitted by student at the University of Montana at Missoula to the U.S. Department of Educationís Office for Civil Rights. Since the complaint was filed, in 2012, the university has been working to make its electronic and information technology accessible, said Marlene K. Zentz, senior instructional designer and accessibility specialist at UM Online.

"Thereís more and more complaints across the country, and students are speaking up," Ms. Zentz said. "Students have to use technology to get an education, so itís more and more critical that campuses are using technologies in accessible ways."

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