Courts & the Law, Higher Ed, News

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.

Courts & the Law, COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News

Judge reconsidering whether to intervene in DPS prison response to COVID-19

During a court hearing Wednesday, plaintiffs painted a stark picture of what it’s like to be in a North Carolina prison during a pandemic.

Social distancing isn’t possible; the Department of Public Safety doesn’t have a plan to further decrease the population; in fact it plans to increasing it by 1,700 to 1,800 people. The rate of infection in the state prisons is unknown, and DPS doesn’t have a comprehensive testing plan. Nor is DPS taking special steps to protect its most vulnerable incarcerated people from the deadly virus.

Leah Kang, a staff attorney at the ACLU of North Carolina representing the plaintiffs, highlighted stories of incarcerated peoples’ deaths, but also of those who are sick, who have been denied or delayed medical care, and those who had COVID-19 but “recovered” and will continue to suffer long-term and permanently debilitating effects from the virus.

“There is preventable human suffering and death that has and will continue to occur in DPS prisons,” Kang said. “It calls upon this court for a remedy. … This is cruel and unusual punishment, your honor.”

This is the second time Kang has argued in front of Judge Vince Rozier in Wake County Superior Court asking him to grant a preliminary injunction and appoint a special master to help DPS figure out how to implement proper social distancing and prioritize releasing medically vulnerable incarcerated people, as well as those individuals who are close to their release date.

Attorneys for DPS told another story. The agency said it is complying with, and in some cases exceeding, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yes, the agency has resumed transfers of incarcerated people from prison to prison, said the attorneys, but it has been taking precautions to keep them safe, and has been transparent with the public about the policy changes during the pandemic.

Assistant Attorney General Orlando Rodriguez said social distancing is possible in prisons, just not at night because there isn’t space to move bunks far enough apart. However, there are still other options for people to distance. He also said the plaintiffs’ requests for relief are based on the premise that public health best practices are a standard of law, but they aren’t, and the constitution doesn’t require perfection. Read more

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy

Congressional Black Caucus to push for substantive police reforms following George Floyd’s death, recent protests

U.S. Representatives G.K. Butterfield (NC-1)

As demonstrators continued to take to the streets to push for change, North Carolina Congressman G.K. Butterfield vowed his colleagues will be pushing just as hard for change in Congress.

Butterfield said his life experience has taught him that the police are “absolutely necessary in our communities,” but the country is demanding responsible police officers and accountability.

Butterfield said that members of the Congressional Black Caucus are assembling a package of legislation to present to Democratic House leadership in the next few days that addresses everything from qualified immunity to the use of chokeholds.

“Right now police officers have qualified immunity and that’s why I believe many of them engage in this outrageous behavior,” explained Butterfield.”If we could create a situation where they could be held accountable in civil court and account for damages, then I believe we will see better conduct.”

U.S. Representatives Alma Adams (NC-12)

Another proposal being floated would be the creation of a nationwide database that identifies trends, to prevent an officer who gets fired for excessive force from simply getting a job with another department in another county or another state.

Congresswoman Alma Adams (NC-12) joined Butterfield in demanding reforms in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

She said she was especially troubled to see law enforcement using tear gas against demonstrators in her own district.

“I’m just appalled at these chemical agents they are using. I think it’s just creating a larger problem,” said Rep. Adams, who would like to see use of the gas banned.

A vote on the proposed legislation could come at the end of June.

Both Adams and Butterfield also criticized President Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis on Wednesday, which has disproportionately affected black communities in North Carolina.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health & Human Services, African Americans make up 22% of North Carolina’s population but have accounted for 35% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.

“The truth is that at every step along the way, the Trump administration has ignored the racial disparities of this crisis. In particular, minority owned-businesses in districts like mine in Eastern North Carolina have been devastated by this pandemic. They have asked for help from the federal government, and they have been ignored,” said Butterfield.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

ACLU of NC responds to protests, militarized police action

Police across the nation have responded with violence and militarization to ongoing protests against the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police.

In North Carolina, protests have taken place throughout the state, with demonstrators and police clashing in Raleigh, Fayetteville and Charlotte. The ACLU of North Carolina is responding. Below is the statement the organization released today:

“The protests and uprisings happening here in North Carolina and across the country are a direct response to the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd, and the epidemic of police violence and brutality that has victimized Black communities for centuries.

The violent and militarized tactics we saw deployed by state and local law enforcement over the weekend were a dangerous affront to First Amendment rights that inflamed tensions and endangered the lives and well-being of protesters and journalists. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and military-grade equipment are weapons of war that have no place on our city streets and serve only to compound the suffering and grief gripping our Black and Brown communities.

State and local law enforcement agencies must immediately begin respecting the constitutional rights of demonstrators, including halting the use of excessive force, suspending the use of militarized equipment, and ensuring safe spaces for people to express their demands for justice.

Curfews also raise serious constitutional concerns by broadly infringing on the rights of peaceful demonstrators, and serving as a pretext for biased arrests. By making presence on public streets anywhere in the city unlawful, these measures will lead to selective enforcement against people of color, and risk harassment of people who are unhoused. Any such restriction must clearly communicate to the public when and where it will apply, articulate valid justifications for the restrictions, and provide ample alternative locations where people may gather to express their views on the important issues.

Combined with the aggressive show of military force and the troubling accounts of excessive force by the police, curfews repeat the violence and brutality at the root of the protests.

Above all, our elected officials must begin to confront and address the systemic racism and injustice that pervades our society and our institutions. The pain and anguish that is spilling out onto our streets is a result of our country’s repeated failure to address the institutionalized racism and injustice that has claimed countless Black lives. Without justice, there will not be peace. We will continue to stand with our fellow North Carolinians against white supremacy and police violence.”

Courts & the Law, COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News, Voting

Voting rights advocates vow to keep fighting for fair, accessible, just election

(Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Questions about what the upcoming election will look like in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic have been circulating for weeks in North Carolina.

House lawmakers introduced a bipartisan measure to address some concerns about accessibility to the ballot, but later the same day, a number of voting rights organizations filed a federal lawsuit challenging several of the state’s registration and voting requirements, including the witness requirement for absentee ballot signatures, limited registration period for new voters, and the lack of safe accommodations for in-person polling places.

Advocates have praised the measure, House Bill 1169, but they’ve also pointed to issues it doesn’t address, like prepaid postage for by-mail absentee ballots and contactless drop boxes where ballots could be dropped off.

Tomas Lopez, executive director of Democracy NC also said lawmakers haven’t been able to work in a bipartisan fashion on other important democratic issues so voters have to be vigilant. “None of us are here calling for an all-mail election,” he said, adding that there still needed to be measures in place to protect a system that was not built for a surge of absentee ballots.

Lopez and other advocates representing more than 30 national and local civil and voting rights and social justice organizations held a virtual press conference to preview a virtual day of action tomorrow. It’s expected to serve as a unify and mobilize people to assert that they will fight “from now until November” for a just democracy.

House lawmakers will discuss HB 1169 at a House Elections and Ethics Law Committee at 9 a.m. Wednesday. The virtual day of action events begin at 2 p.m.

The #ProtectOurVoteNC Virtual Day of Action corresponds with the continuation of the General Assembly’s short session when legislators are making crucial decisions that could shape the state’s 2020 elections. Participating organizations are fighting barriers to voting imposed by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, as well those who are using a deadly pandemic for political gain and profits.

“Even through our grief, our anger, our sorrow and pain, and yes, our fears, we will stay in covenant with our long history of fighting for a representative democracy that lives up the hopes of our ancestors and ambitions of children’s greatest dreams,” said the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman. “Our voice matters; our votes matter; our lives matter.”

“North Carolina is a testing ground for this nation,” Spearman said. “The fight over our democracy has dominated cycles and cycles of news coverage. We have won tremendous victories against bold, unapologetic efforts to silence and suppress the voices of Black voters, LatinX, the poor, women, immigrants and workers. Tomorrow we’re calling on the North Carolina General Assembly to turn the page on that chapter and commit to making North Carolina a laboratory for making our democracy the most accessible in this nation, the most free, the most fair, the most just, the most safe.”

Democracy North Carolina, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and six individual voters filed the federal lawsuit late Friday. They are represented by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Fair Elections Center and pro bono counsel from law firm WilmerHale in Washington, D.C. Read the full lawsuit below.



Complaint LWV Dem NC (Text)