University of Montana students with disabilities file complaint over inaccessible online course components

Americas, September 18 2012

Travis Moses is a blind student who can’t always do his homework because an online program the University of Montana uses is inaccessible to him.

Moses, a senior in the social work program, is one of some 1,121 students registered with UM’s Disability Student Services. He estimates from 75 percent to 90 percent of his classes have an online component – and some UM courses are only online.

“I’ve been told every year, ‘Oh, we’re working on it,’ ” Moses said Monday. “Well, you know, I’ve gotten to the point that I doubt it. I’m angry that something was put in place that was not verified.”

Last May, the Alliance for Disability and Students at the University of Montana – ADSUM – filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging students such as Moses who have disabilities face discrimination at UM. On Monday, the department’s Office for Civil Rights confirmed in an email the complaint about educational technologies is under investigation.

In an earlier letter to ADSUM, the Office for Civil Rights noted it has jurisdiction over the allegations: “We have determined that OCR has the authority to resolve your complaint and will do so in accordance with applicable laws and policies.”

The Aug. 15 letter outlines the specific allegations:

  • Inaccessible class assignments and materials on the learning management system, Moodle.
  • Inaccessible live chat and discussion board functions in the learning management system, Moodle.
  • Inaccessible documents that are scanned images on webpages and websites.
  • Inaccessible videos, and videos in Flash format, that are not captioned.
  • Inaccessible library database materials.
  • Inaccessible course registration through a website, Cyber Bear.
  • Inaccessible classroom clickers.

If the online system worked, Moses would be able use a “screen reader” to translate into text the reading assignments uploaded as, say, PDFs. Then, an audio program would read him the text, and he’d do his homework. Instead, professors or their helpers sometimes bungle the upload, so when Moses tries to translate the document, he gets gobbledygook.

“There is no required training for the professors that use the software, and that’s a major problem,” Moses said, noting access issues have delayed his graduation and also affect students without disabilities because scans can be such poor quality.

That’s just one example of the technological hurdles students with disabilities run into, according to ADSUM director Courtney Damron, who filed the complaint. In a letter about the filing, Damron notes the Americans with Disabilities Act was adopted 22 years earlier, but the University of Montana “still fails to provide full access” to programs and course materials, among other areas.

“These barriers to educational technology should not be tolerated by students on campus,” writes Damron in part of the letter announcing the investigation to the campus and Missoula community; she continues, “Inclusionary and exclusionary practices speak volumes for the reputation of our institution. Students with disabilities have a civil right to post-secondary education at federally funded universities.”

In an interview, Damron said ADSUM did its best to resolve problems through channels on campus, but after at least five years of discussion, UM administrators still hadn’t adequately addressed problems. So ADSUM, a student group, took its complaint to the federal agency.

“ADSUM has a real history of being the conscience of accessibility for UM,” Damron said.

UM officials agree, and they have responded to requests from the Office for Civil Rights by providing details on policies, practices and records of recent concerns.

On Monday, the interim director for Disability Student Services and interim vice president of integrated communications said they respect the action by UM students and already are working to increase access.

“We have advocated for access in this department and so has student affairs and so has the president,” said Amy Capolupo, interim director for disability services. “Really, our students are now sending a message very clearly that access is everyone’s responsibility on campus, and we all need to take a role in that.”

In the last couple years, disability services has secured funding for sign language interpreters, and it also has added student staff who specifically address captioning in videos used in classrooms, another gap, she said. A policy change is in the works to ensure teachers turn in videos with enough lead time to allow someone to write captions before class.

Her office also offers a training on one of the tools in question, Moodle, but training didn’t appear to be a requirement, according to Peggy Kuhr, interim vice president of integrated communications.

As technology evolves, barriers come up, Capolupo said. Her office helps students with “work-arounds,” but she said UM also must be proactive and make sure the tools it plans to buy, use and implement already work for students with disabilities.

“We’re trying to take systems that are not accessible and make them accessible,” Capolupo said. “In my opinion, access has to come from up front.”

She doesn’t know what the best response is to get ahead of the technological barriers, but she said ADSUM’s suggestion to hire an IT employee responsible for ensuring accessibility on the front end is “on the right track (and) one potential solution.”

Kuhr said even before the complaint came to the attention of the administration, a committee had been working to address educational technologies at the direction of UM President Royce Engstrom, the vice president for student affairs, and the chief information officer.

The committee is writing an electronic and information technology policy, she said; a draft is slated to be available by Oct. 15.

“And I am assured that this concern that ADSUM has will be part of it,” Kuhr said.

By Keila Szpaller

Source: missoulian

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