Stephanie Enyart, AFB’s Chief Public Policy and Research Officer:
The Americans with Disabilities Act created an important set of rights that human beings then struggled to implement. For students who attended college before the ADA, they were navigating without a comprehensive set of rights. Sometimes they ended up in a great spot, because people came through for them. But if they didn’t, students struggled to create a fully accessible educational experience.
Even for students who came after the ADA, with an outlined set of civil rights, there still wasn’t an underlying set of specified practices every university had to follow to ensure students’ rights to equal access and full participation could be fully realized.
Sometimes the problem lies with the under-resourced disability services program staff, sometimes with professors, sometimes with the administration, or the textbook publishers, or the learning content management software developers. Sometimes it’s even the student who doesn’t know what their own rights are, or how to advocate for the best solution. Currently, we’re still trying to get people to understand what their role is in making this access a reality. But if we can get to the point where everyone is using an accessible digital textbook, so they can access it however they like—large print, braille, audio, whatever—that reduces the need for so much coordination of services. And that reduces the burden on students, so they can stop taking that extra five-unit course that a blind student takes every semester, called “accessing materials and services.”
I waited to go to law school until a time when requesting digital textbooks was commonplace. However, my law school and the legal publishers still struggled to ensure timely access to course materials. I didn’t have textbooks for the first six weeks of each term. You can’t get unburied from that kind of lag. I never did get a criminal law textbook. And I ended up having to get a lawyer, to make sure the administration understood they really did have to resolve this access issue. Even things that we’ve litigated, and come to a conclusion on, sadly still have to be fought for. But the ADA has been an equalizer, and a massive gain. It’s why we have blind professionals today, and how we will have blind professionals in the future.
We all have a role to play in raising consciousness about the way these rights should be implemented and supported. At AFB, our dream is that the ADA gets fully implemented through system-wide change. We’re working toward the end goal of proactive, baked-in accessibility. It would mean that there’s less work for all of us to do, and we could truly be living a life of no limits.
Haben Girma, Disability Rights Lawyer, Author, Speaker:
The ADA helped move our culture forward. There were laws before it—there was the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which focused on kindergarten through 12th grade. There was also Section 504, requiring all entities, including schools, receiving federal funding to make sure that programs were accessible to blind students.
So colleges had legal obligations before the ADA, but the ADA’s passage in 1990 further drove home the message that it's not right to have separate services and deny access to disabled students. Disabled students should have full access. It's still a problem. Even after the ADA, when I was looking for colleges to attend, one school told me, "We're very sorry, but we don't have a braille embosser. We're not sure how we will make your books available to you. We don't know if we'll be able to make them available on time. You'll be on your own. You know, you should really reconsider going to college."
That was one school. Then the other school, the school I went to was Lewis & Clark. And they told me, “We don't have a braille embosser, but we'll get one. We'll learn how to do it over the summer. We'll have a reading specialist come and learn how to produce braille. And so we can get your books to you on time.”
And they made it a priority. They worked directly with the professors to make sure my books, quizzes, all written material was available in braille. And that meant I could just focus on being a student, rather than trying to be a student and make my materials accessible and constantly coordinate with professors to make sure that they got materials to the disabled students services’ office on time.
I had a lot of access in college. But there are still many colleges after the ADA that don't provide full access to blind students. And that's not fair. That needs to stop. Schools need to meet their legal obligations.
Listen to the full Conversation with Haben Girma.
Tim Elder, Civil Rights Attorney:
The ADA has definitely opened up access to higher education. There is no question that all the major universities and colleges are thinking about disability access to some degree or another. I doubt you could find a respectable school today that really had no concept of providing access for students with disabilities—so that’s a good thing.
We have gained admittance and accommodations and a whole template of services and procedures to ensure blind people and disabled people can participate in education.
But we haven’t yet figured out how to ensure that a blind student can get access to that education with the same convenience and ease of use as other students. I know there are many blind students who are having to work harder than their peers to get access to the same material. And that puts them at a disadvantage. Because if you have to spend more time just getting access to the same information, then you have less time to do things like socialize, network, gain work experience—it puts you at a disadvantage in competing to be the best of the best in the academic realm.
Blind people are definitely able to succeed and do very well in academia, but they are working a lot harder than their peers to get the same results. We still need to ensure some of those systemic things like digital access to information are integrated.
I’d like to see an educational system where a blind student went in and was able to go through their academic program and they don’t need accommodations. It is universally accessible. They get their textbooks and they are fully accessible – instantly converted into braille through translation. They go into the classroom and the virtual learning platform works with the screen reader, no problem. You are not trying to get a narrative description of what’s been handwritten on a board. You are just accessing information in a different way and there’s no special accommodation that needs to happen. Information is flexible and it can be converted into any number of formats.
I think we will get there someday. Maybe that’s the task for the next 30 years of the ADA, right? To move away from the reactive model, which is “Let’s just build it the way we want to, without following standards, and if a blind person comes along we will deal with accommodations and special scripting to get the person’s access up to speed.” I hope we are moving to a more proactive model. We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s a lot more to do.