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UPDATE: Feds Reviewing Complaint against Penn State

on December 01, 2010 8:37 AM

Update, posted @ 8:37 a.m. Dec. 1:

The U.S. Department of Education is evaluating allegations of discrimination against Penn State, a department spokesman confirmed this week.

Early last month, the National Federation of the Blind filed the allegations in a formal complaint against the university. The complaint alleges that key computer systems at Penn State are not adequately accessible to the visually impaired, and that the university does not fully comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As a result, the federation has written, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights should open an investigation and require that the alleged ADA violations be corrected.

Right now, the education department is examining those allegations "to determine whether they are appropriate for OCR investigation and resolution," department spokesman Jim Bradshaw wrote in an e-mail message to StateCollege.com.

According to the OCR website, the office reviews complaints for timeliness and ample detail -- among other elements -- before deciding whether to launch a formal investigation.

Penn State has not yet publicly addressed the contents of the complaint, though a university spokesman has said it's looking into the matter and takes seriously issues of accessibility and equity.

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Initial report, posted @ 5:52 p.m. Nov. 12:

The National Federation of the Blind filed a formal complaint Friday against Penn State, alleging that the university has failed to make key computer systems adequately accessible to blind students and faculty members.

In the seven-page complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education, the NFB has claimed that Penn State is not complying fully with the American with Disabilities Act. A variety of computer-based programs and websites at the university "are inaccessible to blind and print-disabled students -- including the website of the Office of Disability Services, whose mission is to provide services to students with disabilities at Penn State," the complaint reads.

"We're kind of hoping that in addition to resolving problems at Penn State, this will serve as a wake-up call," NFB spokesman Chris Danielsen said. "We hear these kinds of complaints from students and faculty all over the country. ...

"These problems are pretty widespread," he went on. "But we're hoping that the Penn State (complaint) will have a wide impact and that it will be a wake-up call for other universities."

Danielsen said he could not speak to why Penn State specifically was chosen as the complaint's target. "This is the first time we've filed a complaint that is this sweeping and addresses a lot of different concerns," he said.

Penn State spokesman Geoff Rushton said Friday afternoon that the university had not yet received the complaint and could not immediately address its specifics.

"We're looking into it," Rushton said. " ... Of course, issues of accessibility and equity are very important and something we take seriously," Rushton said.

The complaint lists seven areas where the NFB believes the university falls short in providing equal access to blind people. Those areas include the university libraries website, which the NFB called inaccessible to blind students "because of poor site design and because many features are not accessible through" screen-reader software.

Other areas cited by the NFB include these:

  • Department websites. Each academic department's website offers "a different set of accessibility barriers to blind users," the complaint reads. Reported barriers range from graphics difficulties to column headers.
  • Course-management software: ANGEL, the online system that hosts course content and eases communication among students and professors, is "almost totally inaccessible for blind users," the complaint says. "It has two modes -- a full-mode version and a PDA-mode version. Blind students are forced to use the PDA mode, which has less utility than the full-mode version ... ." An e-mail interface, a calendar, assignments, online chats, discussion groups and a grade book are all inaccessible in PDA mode, the complaint says.
  • Classroom concerns: The university has placed "smart" podiums in classrooms, allowing faculty members to connect their laptops to in-house hardware and project digital images and videos. But the podiums are largely inaccessible to the blind faculty members, leaving them "totally dependent on sighted human assistance to teach classes using smart podiums," the complaint says.
  • eLion: The computer system that students use to register for classes and access their transcripts -- eLion -- is difficult for blind faculty members to access, according to the complaint.
  • Bank access: Penn State has an arrangement with PNC Bank that allows students to use university ID cards as debit cards. But the PNC website is "almost unusable with screen-reader software," the complaint reads. Further, it says, "PNC currently operates only one accessible ATM on the entire State College campus of Penn State University."

All the technical problems outlined in the complaint could be remedied with alternative technology, the NFB has argued. It suggests that the university should hire trained workers to oversee accessibility for all its  campuses; conduct an accessibility audit and develop a corrective plan; and create a manual to guide ADA-friendly code on its websites, among other pro-active, systematic changes.

The NFB represents about 50,000 blind people, Danielsen said. He said the organization did not directly approach Penn State about its concerns before filing the federal complaint. But faculty members and students earlier approached the university with their grievances, Danielsen said. The complaint asks the Department of Education to investigate the alleged ADA violations and require that they be corrected.

The ADA is meant to ensure fair and equitable access for people with disabilities.

Danielsen said he knows of blind people who have been successful at Penn State. And "I don't know that it's any more or less difficult than any other university" in terms of accessibility, he said.

But "gratuitous accessibility barriers ... have to be managed because universities are going toward using more technology and using more online courses," Danielsen said. If technical impediments aren't addressed now, he said, "the university environment will become increasingly inhospitable to blind people."

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