Blind student files federal discrimination lawsuit against Duke University

Image: Duke.edu/Julie Schoonmaker

B efore Mary Fernandez enrolled at Duke University, she was assured she would be provided the accommodations for an equal education to her peers who aren’t blind.

Despite that assurance, Fernandez experienced barriers that permeated every aspect of her educational experience at Duke, according to a news release about a new federal lawsuit against the university.

“When she applied for admission, she encountered an inaccessible web-based application,” the release states. “When she registered online for courses, she could not access the course descriptions. When she utilized the employer recruiting system, she could not set up her user profile and could not utilize any of the search functions. In addition, Duke failed to provide Ms. Fernandez with timely access to accessible course materials, including hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics when she requested them. As a result, Ms. Fernandez was continually forced to divert her time and attention away from her studies to advocate for equal access to her education.”

Duke University officials did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Duke University systematically discriminates against blind students and alumni in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday. The action, brought by the National Federation of the Blind and Fernandez, alleges that Duke failed to ensure that blind students can interact with digital content and platforms and access course materials on an equal basis with students without disabilities.

Fernandez began the Duke daytime MBA program in the fall of 2018. To read print, she uses screen access software, Job Access with Speech (JAWS), which vocalizes the text using synthesized speech or displays it on a connected device called a refreshable Braille display. For STEM subjects, Fernandez also uses hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics to better understand the complex concepts because refreshable Braille displays only display a single line of Braille cells at a time, and thus are not useful for complex equations, coordinate planes, diagrams, maps and other graphics.

“I expected an institution with Duke’s high standards and reputation to be able to meet my needs as a blind student and was assured that would happen,” Fernandez said. “Instead, my time at Duke has been something of a nightmare. I hope the action I am now taking will improve things for future blind students who want to attend Duke.”

The National Federation of the Blind, headquartered in Baltimore, is the oldest and largest nationwide organization of Americans with low vision. It defends the rights of blind people of all ages and provides information and support to families with blind children, older Americans who are losing vision, and more.

Mark Riccobono, president of the organization, said discrimination against blind students is not a new issue; it’s been a focus of their advocacy for nearly two decades, and “institutions of higher education have no excuse for not meeting this legal and moral obligation.”

“The blind cannot and will not tolerate discrimination of this kind,” he added.The blind cannot and will not tolerate discrimination of this kind. Click To Tweet

The plaintiffs are represented by the attorneys of Disability Rights NC and the law firm of Brown Goldstein Levy LLP.

“The failure to provide blind students with timely, accessible course materials and career services not only harms their educational experience, it puts their future career and economic self-sufficiency at risk,” said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, CEO of Disability Rights NC. “Duke University, in particular, has previously been sued by Disability Rights NC regarding the inaccessibility of its course materials and has the responsibility to know better and do better.”

Duke University settled a lawsuit in 2016 filed by Disability Rights NC on behalf of a student with dyslexia who accused the school of not accommodating his educational needs. Under the settlement, Duke agreed to provide additional training to its disability services staff and liaisons to enhance the effectiveness of student accommodations, to forge a connection between the disability services office and IT staff to ensure that technical issues related to the provision of accommodations are resolved quickly and to publicize the student ombudsman’s contact information on the accessibility services website, according to a previous news release.

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