Department of Justice alleges campus in violation of Americans with Disabilities Act

UC Berkeley's Massive Open Online Courses, offered through online learning platform edX, were among those alleged to lack an accessible design.

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Update 09/20/16: This article has been updated to reflect additional information from campus spokesperson Roqua Montez

The campus responded last week to the U.S. Department of Justice’s allegations that UC Berkeley violates Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act because of the inaccessibility of some of campus’s public online educational content.

In an Aug. 30 letter, the DOJ alleges that the campus’s Youtube Channel, iTunesU platform and Massive Open Online Courses lack accessible design and calls for UC Berkeley to take steps toward accommodation. The DOJ declined to comment on the allegations, but in its letter, the department detailed specific violations of Title II, including an alleged lack of accurate closed captioning in videos for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“The Department found that of the 543 videos it could identify on the YouTube channel, 75 had manually generated closed captions,” the letter stated. “Of the remainder, many had automatic captioning generated by YouTube’s speech recognition technology.”

The letter also states that the content could be potentially inaccessible to people with visual disabilities. The DOJ letter alleged that some videos do not include alternative ways to access visual information, such as audio descriptions of images, and that some documents are not formatted properly for individuals who use screen readers — software programs that convert visual text into synthesized speech or braille.

Campus spokesperson Roqua Montez said while UC Berkeley is committed to making public educational content accessible, such as the online programs cited in the DOJ letter, its first priority is accessibility for enrolled students. The problem for the campus currently, he said, is making the accommodations requested by the DOJ in light of financial constraints.

“(UC Berkeley) has accepted the Department’s invitation to enter into discussions regarding its findings letter,”  Montez said. “We are hopeful that those discussions can lead to an agreement that will enable the (campus) to continue offering free online content to the public while improving accessibility for users with disabilities.”

The complaints originated from members of National Association of the Deaf, Stacy Nowak and Glenn Lockhart, who are not affiliated with the university and could not be reached for comment.

English professors Susan Schweik and Georgina Kleege called the campus response to the allegations “grudging.”

“It’s possible to see an undertone of resentment,” Kleege said. “‘Oh, these people with disabilities are asking for too much. It’s too expensive and we can’t possibly accommodate all these people.’ It makes a subtle statement about inclusion of people with disabilities on this campus.”

To avoid costly fixes and repair, Kleege said the online content designers should have considered accessibility from the outset. She added that she knows students and faculty with disabilities that are unsatisfied with accessibility overall on campus.

Kleege is blind and explained that even for faculty, it can be difficult to work with various websites and materials. For instance, when bCourses was first launched, Kleege said she struggled to create the site for her students because the user accessibility of the tools was limited.

“I imagined that the designer might have imagined a blind student using the site but they might not have thought of a blind professor using it. That’s a problem,” Kleege said. “It goes to the idea of who is the public that you’re designing for and that public includes people with disabilities.”

The campus’s Educational Technology Services offers support to students with disabilities for the use of online course material, and the Disabled Students’ Program generally oversees accommodations for students with disabilities.

According to Montez, though the campus has not yet addressed disability accommodation concerns with the DOJ, it has reached agreements with disability rights organizations regarding the physical accessibility of campus facilities and the availability of alternative printed media for students with disabilities

Instead of a complaint-based improvement system, Kleege and Schweik emphasized that they would like to see a shift into active consideration of disability rights across the board.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for this campus to think about accessibility,” Schweik said. “This should be met as a serious challenge in a budget-strapped, large university with a desire to serve the public as a public university should.”

Contact Malini Ramaiyer at [email protected].