Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why Your Course Materials Might Violate the ADA

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) reported that in 2008 nearly 11 percent of postsecondary students had a disability, ranging from visual to motor impairments. Though administrators and faculty may be familiar with some common accommodations for disabled students such as extra time on exams and note takers, they may not know that they also need to ensure textbooks, websites, handouts, and similar course materials are accessible.

For example, roughly 100,000 to 200,000 postsecondary students have print disabilities, meaning they cannot read standard print because of physical, developmental, or learning disabilities. Legally, schools need to make reasonable accomodations for these and other disabilites that prevent students from accessing print and digital content.

The lack of accessible materials can have serious effects on a student's success, causing them to fall behind or even withdraw from courses without access to the same materials as their classmates.

Three high-profile cases settled in the first-half of 2013 illustrate the importance of making sure all course materials are accessible.

  • In March, South Carolina Technical College System entered into an agreement with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) over findings that its websites were not accessible to visually impaired students. It agreed to develop a resource guide of accessibility requirements, make its websites accessible, and annually review its websites and address accessibility problems.
  • In May, the University of California at Berkeley reached a settlement with Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) to ensure that students with print related disabilities had access to all necessary materials. Berkeley agreed to implement policies and procedures to provide access to print materials through alternative media solutions, interim accomodations, or personal readers.
  • In July, the Department of Justice (DOJ) settled with Louisiana Tech University over claims that the university used an online learning product that was inaccessible to blind students. The university will make learning technology, web pages, and course content accessible, and train its instructors and administrators on accessibility requirements. 


Training the Faculty

As these recent cases illustrate, the push to move course material online is creating new challenges (and opportunities) with regards to accessibility. Indeed, as more students with disabilities enroll in colleges and universities, faculty will increasingly need to be forward-thinking to ensure their textbooks, handouts, and online materials are fully accessible.

Part of the Louisiana Tech agreement explicitly requires the university to train "all individuals who provide any course-related instruction to University students (including, but not limited to, professors, instructors, other faculty, and teaching assistants)" on accommodation requirements and best practices.

Indeed, at this year's annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Attorneys, L. Scott Lisner of Ohio State University spoke to this issue:
"I used to say I didn’t want individual faculty members making individual accommodations for their students. Now I need 5,000 content creators to be creating accessible content...I don’t expect a faculty member to convert a textbook, but it is not unreasonable of them to convert a 20-page article on a webpage into an accessible format."
(Quoted in Online Accessibility a Faculty Duty at InsideHigherEd). Lisner is the president of the National Association on Higher Education and Disability.

Faculty can also help students understand their responsibilties. Unlike high schools, colleges and universities do not need to identify students with disabilities or document their needs. Thus a greater burden rests on the students' shoulders. They must identify themselves, provide documentation of their disabilities, and request accommodations. This means that new students with disabilities may not be aware of their responsibilities at the university level.

For example, the Berkeley settlement includes Alternative Media Guidelines for disabled students. The guidelines provide students with information on requesting and receiving accessible course materials.

So, as the new school year starts, here are some important questions to ask about your own campus's accommodation procedures.

  • Does your school have an individual who coordinates the school’s compliance with the Rehabilitation Act and ADA, as required by law?
  • Do you have professionals evaluate accommodation requests on a case by case basis?
  • Do you have well-publicized grievance procedures to ensure prompt and equitable resolution of complaints?
  • Are faculty members aware of their responsibility to accommodate students with disabilities? Do they know how?
  • Are course websites and your school's learning management systems accessible?
  • Do you reach out to students with disabilities who may not be aware of the services your school provides or how to get them?


Further Reading

Grasgreen, Allie. "Audiobooks Aren't Enough," InsideHigherEd. 26 July 2013.

Rothstein, Laura. "New Legal Questions About Diability Demand Colleges' Attention." Chronicle of Higher Education. 5 August 2013.

ADA best practices toolkit for websites

Joint Dear Colleague Letter on "Electronic Book Readers," Department of Education and Department of Justice

Department of Education FAQ

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

New Developments in Title IX and Transgender Students

A recent settlement in California suggests schools will need to be more proactive in accommodating transgender students under Title IX.

In July, the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Arcadia Unified School District in California reached a resolution agreement based on a complaint that the district violated Title IX by denying a transgender student equal access to education programs and facilities.

The student, whose birth sex was female, has identified as a boy since a young age. With his family's support, he began transitioning from female to male in the fifth grade. He asked to be called by masculine pronouns, adopted a traditionally male first name, and wore male clothes. The student's classmates quickly accepted his transition to male.

The school district, however, was less accommodating. It wouldn't let the student use the boy's bathroom or locker room. When changing for gym class, he had to use the school's health offices, even though he had used the same boys' locker room — without incident — during a summer camp held at the middle school.

And when the boy's class went on an overnight field trip, the district forced the student to stay in his own cabin with a parent while other students shared cabins. The student had requested several other boys as cabin mates, and indeed, several boys had requested him.

After the student filed complaints claiming the school district was violating Title IX, the district reached a resolution agreement with the DoJ. They agreed to permit the student to use male-designated facilities and "otherwise treat the Student as a boy in all respects."

On the heels of this agreement, California passed a law to protect transgender students from sex discrimination and clarify existing protections.

In language that recalls the situation at Arcadia, the bill requires that "a pupil be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records." The California bill is the first of its kind in the US.


Accommodating Transgender Students

Both the agreement and the new California law indicate a growing understanding among lawmakers and regulators that schools are responsible for accommodating transgender students.

As the resolution agreement between Arcadia and the DoJ states, "All students, including transgender students and students who do not conform to sex stereotypes, are protected from sex-based discrimination under Title IX."

The Arcadia agreement suggests the Department of Education and DoJ's greater willingness to enforce these aspects of Title IX. Erin Buzuvis wrote at Title IX blog that the Arcadia case "represents the first time that the Department of Education has considered under its jurisdiction to enforce Title IX a claim involving discrimination on the basis of transgender gender identity."

Universities and colleges should review their policies and procedures to make sure they have the proper policies and procedures to work with transgender students.
Indeed, in the past few years many universities and colleges have already been experimenting with ways to better accommodate transgender students. Here are a few examples worth considering:

  • Some colleges allow students to include their preferred names and pronouns on a class roster instead of their legal names, so students don't have to 'out' themselves as transgender by correcting a professor in front of a full classroom. 
  • The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith agreed to allow a transgender student who identified as female to use women's restrooms. Previously, she had been restricted to using gender-neutral restrooms.
  • Oxford University in the UK changed its dress code so students don't have to wear ceremonial clothing specific to their gender.
  • Smith College clarified its statement on gender identity and expression to address transgender students at the all-women's school.
Despite these promising developments, there is still considerable debate on some campuses about what constitutes reasonable accommodations for transgender students.

For instance, this August, the UNC Board of Governors halted a plan by its Chapel Hill campus to offer gender-neutral housing, which allows students of different genders to share apartments and suites, sidestepping problems with single-sex housing for transgender students and providing them a safe space on campus.
Schools can expect these debates about gender-neutral housing and access to single-sex facilities to start playing a larger role in discussions about Title IX.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

One Persistent Myth about College Rape That Could Be Endangering Your Campus

When forensic psychologist David Lisak began researching rape in the early 1980s, most scholars assumed acquaintance rape on college campuses was the result of misunderstandings or miscommunication. It's a myth that still persists.

But Lisak soon discovered something startling: a small number of serial offenders were responsible for a vast majority of these crimes.[1]
In one early study, out of a sample of 1882 male college students, 120 admitted to committing rape. Of those 120 rapists, 76 were serial offenders, who committed an average of six rapes each. None of these men had been detected or disciplined by campus authorities.

In total, 76 men admitted to 439 rapes and 49 sexual assaults. They represented only four percent of the sample, but these men were responsible for over 90% of the rapes. As Lisak explained, these numbers resembled those of convicted rapists more than "the still-prevalent image of a male college student who...mistakenly crosses the line between sexual pressure and rape" (Lisak & Miller 81).

Lisak has since suggested that each report of rape represents an opportunity "to identify a person who is very likely to be a serial offender" (Harwell & Lisak, 1), and should be followed up by a thorough investigation of the suspect.[2] Removing serial offenders from the campus environment may go a long way to reducing sexual violence on campus.


Other Steps

Schools could also find useful allies in other men, encouraging them to intervene when they witness sexual violence. Most men do not support beliefs and attitudes that condone sexual violence. But they are often afraid to speak up when confronted with offensive language or behavior, because they hold mistaken beliefs about their peers' attitudes and beliefs concerning gender and sex. In their desire to conform, they stay silent.[3]

Indeed according to one study, the sole predictor of men's willingness to intervene in a potential sexual assault was their perception of other men's willingness to intervene.[4]

Disturbingly, researchers also suggest that when men perceive rape-myths to be widely accepted, they report a greater "willingness to engage in sexually aggressive behavior." [5] Thus silence itself encourages harmful behavior.

Campuses should break that silence and make heard the voices of the majority of young men who oppose harmful attitudes and behaviors.

Further Reading

For more information about perpetrators of sexual violence see the CDC's page, "Sexual Violence: Risk and Protective Factors."

For more on Lisak's research see:

"Myths That Make It Hard To Stop Campus Rape," NPR, 4th March 2010"

Q&A with David Lisak, a leading expert on non-stranger rape," The Star-Telegram, 20th August 2012.

Works Cited

[1] Lisak, D., Miller, P. (2002). Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending among Undetected Rapists. Violence and Victims, 1, 73-84.

[2] Harwell, M.C., & Lisak, D. (2010). Why Rapists Run Free. Sexual Assault Report, 14, 17-18 & 26-27, esp. 17.

[3] Berkowitz, A.D. (2011). Using How College Men Fell about Being Men and "Doing the Right Thing" to Promote Men's Development. In Laker, J.A., and Davis, T. (Eds). Masculinities in Higher Education: Theoretical and Practical Considerations (pp. 161-176). New York, NY: Routledge.

[4] Fabiano, P.M, Perkins, W.H., Berkowitz, A, Linkenbach, J., Stark, C. (2003). Engaging Men as Social Justice Allies in Ending Violence Against Women: Evidence for a Social Norms Approach. Journal of American College Health, 52, 105-112.

[5] Bohner, G., Siebler, F., and Schmelcher, J. (2006). Social Norms and the Likelihood of Raping: Perceived Rape Myth Acceptance of Others Affects Men's Rape Proclivity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 286-297, esp. 293. Eyssel, F., Bohner, G., Siebler, F. (2006). Perceived Rape Myth Acceptance of Others Predicts rape Proclivity: Social Norm or Judgmental Anchoring? Swiss Journal of Psychology, 65, 93-99.