Volume I Number 3, July 1994

Department: Campus Computing

Daniel Hilton-Chalfen, Ph.D.
University of California, Los Angeles

New Office of Civil Rights Letter a Wakeup Call for Campus Computer and Information Accessibility

Below is an important Letter of (voluntary) Resolution from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to a community college district. The letter concerns a complaint from a student unable to obtain access to print materials and computers, among other things. The OCR letter makes clear that under the ADA, "effective communication" covers printed materials and that preference is given to the individual with the disability as to what format should be used for access, including Braille or electronic text. Note the explanation of "timely manner" for providing such access. This letter spells out a campus' obligation in in more detail than the Office of Civil Rights' earlier Loyola Marymount Letter of Finding. Note too the emphasis on new technologies for providing access, according to Department of Justice ADA guidelines.

This letter should alert all campuses to the need to examine their guidelines for providing public and course information in accessible formats--on a timely basis--to their students with print disabilities; to the need to make computing and library facilities accessible; and to the role of adaptive computing technology and related support services in making this possible. Ask yourself these questions:

Consider initiating a working group to discuss developing a campus computer and information access policy. Key participants might include the campus ADA office, campus disability advisory committee, disabled students office, campus computing services, library services, the faculty senate, and the teaching assistant organization. Examine the potential of your Campus Wide Information System (CWIS) for making printed public information available in electronic format.

Organizations like AAHE's EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information) have resources (materials, seminars, consultants, Internet discussion lists) that can facilitate your efforts, based on the experience of many campuses around the country (email: easi@educom.edu tel: 310-640-3193).

Think proactively! The OCR letter follows:

United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights

April 21, 1994

Region IX

Old Federal Building
50 United Nations Plaza. Room 239
San Francisco, California 94102

Dr. Queen F. Randall
Los Rios Community College District
1919 Spanos Court
Sacramento, CA 95825-3981

(In reply, please refer to Docket Numbers 09-93-2214-I, 09-93-2215-I, 09-93-2216-I.)

Dear Chancellor Randall:

On September 22, 1993, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), U.S. Department of Education (Department), received the above referenced complaints filed against the American River College (hereinafter ARC), Cosumnes River College (hereinafter CRC), and Sacramento City College (hereinafter SCC). The complainant alleged that these colleges discriminated against her on the basis of her disability (visual impairment) in that their campuses are allegedly not fully accessible to visually impaired students with regard to written materials, the computer laboratory, the library, physical education courses, and student employment services and opportunities.

OCR has the responsibility under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and its implementing regulation at 34 C.F.R. Part 104, to ensure that a recipient of Federal financial assistance through the Department does not discriminate against persons participating in its programs and activities, such as students, on the basis of disability. OCR also has jurisdiction as a designated agency under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and its implementing regulation at 28 C.F.R. Part 35, over complaints of disability discrimination filed against public educational entities, including public elementary and secondary systems and institutions. The Los Rios Community College District (District) campuses at ARC, CRC, and SCC, receive Federal funds through the Department and are public educational entities; OCR therefore has jurisdiction to investigate these complaints pursuant to Section 504 and Title II.

Under Section 504 and Title II, as to a recipient of federal funds and a public entity, respectively, no qualified individual with a disability shall, on the basis of disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities, or be subjected to discrimination.

Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 28 C.F.R. SS 35.160, a public entity shall take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with applicants, participants, and members of the public with disabilities are as effective as communications with others. A public entity shall furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to afford an individual with a disability an equal opportunity to participate in, and enjoy the benefits of, a service, program, or activity conducted by a public entity. In determining what type of auxiliary aid and service is necessary, a public entity shall give Primary consideration to the requests of the individual with disabilities (emphasis added).

The Department of Justice (DOJ) interpretive guidance accompanying section 35.160 states that "Deference to the request of the individual with a disability is desirable because of the range of disabilities, the variety of auxiliary aids and services, and different circumstances requiring effective communication.". The DOJ guidelines are clear that printed materials are within the meaning of "communication." In describing the auxiliary aids and services that are appropriate, the DOJ guidelines recognize the critical role that modern technology now plays in providing program access to persons with disabilities.

OCR provides the following technical assistance. Due to the "range of disabilities" and the "primary consideration" accorded the individual's preference in the manner accommodation is offered, the post-secondary public institution should be prepared to deliver in a reasonable and timely manner the printed materials relied upon in its educational program in all of the following mediums: auditory, tactile (Braille), and enlarged print. Although there may be circumstances when the student's preferred medium is not, on balance, the medium selected by the post-secondary institution to provide the student appropriate aids and services, the institution may not categorically refuse to provide accommodation through a particular medium (e.g., Braille). Rather, the post-secondary institution must be prepared to timely offer access to its printed materials in all three mediums, with the particular medium used for the student's request dependent on a case by case analysis. It should be noted that if the student with the visual impairment prefers, and the public entity is willing to provide, access through "E-text" (electronic text in a digital format read by computer), such method may be used in lieu of access through another medium.

In most instances, "timely" will mean within a reasonable number of days from the student's request, with materials for which "time is of the essence" being made available sooner, and other more voluminous printed materials (e.g., textbook) taking longer. Materials that the public entity is on notice that the student with the visual impairment will need, such as course handouts/examinations in a class the student is enrolled, are to be provided to the student with the visual impairment on the same day as they are made available to nondisabled students. The importance and consequences of student comprehension is a critical factor in determining whether to honor the student's preferred medium. Thus, for example, there is a strong presumption that examinations will be provided in accordance with the student's request, whereas there is more latitude with regard to a student events/activities calendar. The term "printed materials" includes (but is not limited to) post-secondary publications such as student handbooks, admissions applications, class schedules, financial aid information, as well as publications from other sources relied upon by the post-secondary institution in its educational program, such as textbooks. Provided that under the circumstances the method is timely and effective (e.g., voice quality, correct pronunciation, convenience, etc.), auditory access may be accomplished through a variety of methods such as audio-tapes, personal readers, or synthesized speech.

At any point in an OCR investigation prior to a determination, OCR may administratively close the case if the recipient indicates a willingness to resolve all issues raised by the complaint, and provides OCR a written commitment specifying actions that will appropriately resolve each issue. During the investigation of these complaints, the District expressed a willingness to resolve the issues raised by the complaints by providing OCR with a written commitment that specifi

Hilton-Chalfen, D. (1994). Campus computing. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 1(3).