Ed Tech World on Notice: Miami U disability discrimination lawsuit could have major effect

This week the US Department of Justice, citing Title II of ADA, decided to intervene in a private lawsuit filed against Miami University of Ohio regarding disability discrimination based on ed tech usage. Call this a major escalation and just ask the for-profit industry how big an effect DOJ intervention can be. From the complaint:

Miami University uses technologies in its curricular and co-curricular programs, services, and activities that are inaccessible to qualified individuals with disabilities, including current and former students who have vision, hearing, or learning disabilities. Miami University has failed to make these technologies accessible to such individuals and has otherwise failed to ensure that individuals with disabilities can interact with Miami University’s websites and access course assignments, textbooks, and other curricular and co-curricular materials on an equal basis with non-disabled students. These failures have deprived current and former students and others with disabilities a full and equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from all of Miami University’s educational opportunities.

The complaint then calls out the nature of assistive technologies that should be available, including screen readers, Braille display, audio descriptions, captioning, and keyboard navigation. The complaint specifies that Miami U uses many technologies and content that is incompatible with these assistive technologies.

The complaint is very specific about which platforms and tools are incompatible:

  • The main website www.maimioh.edu
  • Vimeo and YouTube
  • Google Docs
  • TurnItIn
  • LearnSmart
  • WebAssign
  • MyStatLab
  • Vista Higher Learning
  • Sapling

Update: It is worth noting the usage of phrase “as implemented by Miami University” in most of these examples.

Despite the complaint listing the last 6 examples as LMS, it is notable that the complaint does not call out the school’s previous LMS (Sakai) nor its current LMS (Canvas). Canvas was selected last year to replace Sakai, and I believe both are in usage. Does this mean that Sakai and Canvas pass ADA muster? That’s my guess, but I’m not 100% sure.

The complaint is also quite specific about the Miami U services that are at fault. For example:

When Miami University has converted physical books and documents into digital formats for students who require such conversion because of their disabilities, it has repeatedly failed to do so in a timely manner. And Miami University has repeatedly provided these students with digitally-converted materials that are inaccessible when used with assistive technologies. This has made the books and documents either completely unusable, or very difficult to use, for the students with these disabilities.

Miami University has a policy or practice by which it converts physical texts and documents into electronic formats only if students can prove they purchased (rather than borrowed) the physical texts or documents. Miami University will not convert into digital formats any physical texts or documents from its library collections and it will not seek to obtain from other libraries existing copies of digitally-converted materials. This has rendered many of the materials that Miami University provides throughout its library system and which it makes available to its students unavailable to students who require that materials be converted into digital formats because of a disability.

The complaint also specifies the required use of clickers and content within PowerPoint.

This one seems to be a very big deal by nature of the DOJ intervention and the specifics of multiple technologies and services.

Thanks to Jim Julius for alerting me on this one.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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6 Responses to Ed Tech World on Notice: Miami U disability discrimination lawsuit could have major effect

  1. Pingback: Ed Tech World on Notice: Miami U disability discrimination lawsuit could have major effect [Hill]

  2. Pingback: We need a *team-based* approach; given the trends, this has now become a requirement. [Christian]

  3. I know that Instructure touts the fact that Canvas was certified by the National Federation of the Blind for its accessibility, and they publish their self-study on accessibility publicly.

    The passage you have there about “…as implemented by Miami U” suggests that the accessibility problems may have been not so much with the technologies themselves but with the way content was posted — eg. failing to use alt tags on images or putting critical information in image form instead of text.

    When it came to Canvas, one of the nifty tricks that helped it be accessible was that it would automatically create alt tags for images, programmatically using the image file name as the alt tag. That’s a big help, but only if the instructor named the file something descriptive, like “Graph of LMS Accessibility Trends 2012-2014.jpg”. If instead the file is named “523492342932012.jpg”, then the alt tag is downright useless to screen reader technology and inaccessible to the students who need it.

    It’s another reason why universities should be wary of leaving too much of the task of instructional design to instructors — many don’t know / don’t care about best practices in accessibility and will do what’s convenient for their workflow. Sometimes “academic freedom” looks like “lack of oversight”, which may be appropriate for faculty’s ideas but a terrible plan when it comes to their course design choices. I’d like to see more of the task of course building done by designers, or at least a “course design audit” process where IDs can check for accessibility (not to mention effective pedagogy).

  4. Phil Hill says:

    Excellent points Ted. I think the Sakai LMS was more relevant as Canvas only recently started being used by Miami; however, your point of “the way content was posted” still holds.

    QOTD: Sometimes “academic freedom” looks like “lack of oversight”

  5. Andy Freed says:

    The inclusion of the MyLabs is one that has made me sweat for years. The MyLabs are selected by faculty (when bundled with a text) but purchased by students and therefore tend to bypass any procurement process a college has in place for vetting purchases for accessibility. Add to the complication that even if the platform is made accessible, you still have content that is only made accessible when there’s enough interest on a title by title basis. I want to believe that we’ll get to an unwalled garden, but the 3rd party activities aren’t playing by the same rules when it comes to accessibility, nor are they motivated to do so.

  6. Pingback: Miami, Harvard and MIT: Disability discrimination lawsuits focused on schools as content providers -e-Literate

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