UC Berkeley to improve access to course materials for disabled students

Gisele Bonds/Courtesy
Courtesy of Photographer, Gisele Bonds.

UC Berkeley reached a settlement agreement Tuesday with three campus students to streamline access to course materials and library holdings for students with disabilities.

The agreement makes getting access to course material quicker and less burdensome for students with disabilities. It also calls for expanding staff, improving accessibility of library websites and digitizing library books and scholarly journals.

The settlement came after a yearlong structured negotiation, a legal process that allowed the university and the students to reach a collaborative agreement. The students and their attorneys from the legal center Disability Rights Advocates met with campus officials from the university library and the Disabled Students Program, consulting experts and using focus groups to identify difficulties.

Getting required course material used to take as long as six weeks, said Rebecca Williford, an attorney at DRA. The new agreement calls for course readings to be available in 10 business days and includes a provision for specific requests for the digitization of library holdings with an average waiting period of five days.

“One big problem (was) those of us students who need screen readers to read at a decent pace,” said Brandon King, a campus fifth-year cognitive science student who participated in the negotiations. “We need to have our books in a visual format, and the library didn’t offer any way to get library books in a digital format before this settlement. So that part is huge.”

Before the settlement, students with print disabilities — visual impairments or learning disabilities, for example — had to submit their required reading list to the Disabled Students Program. The program’s staff members would then scan and digitize books into “alternative media,” an umbrella term for a variety of formats needed by students with disabilities like digital text, braille, large print or specific file formats for use with screen reader programs.

Tabitha Mancini, a Berkeley senior in the sociology department, was also involved in the negotiations.

“I was told (DSP will) only scan books on your syllabus,” Mancini said. “So I kind of went away for a couple semesters … the more I wanted to do research, I realized to be a good researcher, I had to have access to these materials.”

While the new system of distribution for course material is an improvement, it still presents challenges for disabled students, who must take additional steps and face waiting periods to receive course material in a format they can use.

DSP director Paul Hippolitus takes pride in the university’s participation. “Disability rights and advocacy movement started on our campus in the mid-’60s,” Hippolitus said. “We know about that history and cherish it.”

Williford and King praise campus officials for their collaboration during negotiations. But Mancini found the process of getting the university’s attention frustrating.

“They have the technology, but they lacked an organizational system,” Mancini said. “What’s ironic is that (UC Berkeley) is the home of the disability rights movement. I was given the runaround. I met a lot of resistance. Obviously, that was shocking.”

Though King and Mancini are graduating and only took part in the agreement’s pilot program, changes have already begun to appear.

“It was just so nice to go into a library and sit in the rows and work and say, ‘I can read these books and have this access,’” Mancini said. “It’s a very different feeling, because growing up you just get used to not being in these spaces.”

The new provisions will be implemented in fall 2013.

The settlement agreement can be viewed below.

Gautham Thomas covers city government. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @gautham_t.