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.

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC-Chapel Hill instructor petition calls for masks, testing, option to teach online-only

As UNC-Chapel Hill faculty continue to question the plan to re-open to on campus instruction Aug. 10, they have launched a petition calling for specific guarantees for instructors.

The petition asks for school administration to ensure several precautions:

  • No instructor will be required to teach in person or be required to disclose personal health concerns.
  • All members of the UNC-CH community will be required to wear masks and practice physical distancing in classrooms and public settings.
  • All staff, students and faculty on campus will be tested for the virus that causes COVID-19 in the first weeks of classes and that that school develops plan for regular and ongoing testing.

As of Wednesday morning more than 240 instructors had signed the petition, which comes on the heels of sometimes tense faculty meetings with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin that left many professors feeling uneasy about the university’s plan.

Last week Guskiewicz told a joint meeting of the chancellor’s advisory and faculty executive committees that the university will have a community expectation that students, faculty and staff will practice social distancing and wear masks in public settings but it would not likely be enforceable as a strict rule under the school’s honor code.

This week Blouin seemed to walk that back, saying professors should insist students wear masks in class and suggesting there should be consequences for those who don’t comply.

Both men hedged or refused to answer when asked about how many courses instructors will be expected to teach in-person rather than online. They also wouldn’t answer questions about how many students, staff or faculty would need to be infected before the school would go back to online-only instruction.

COVID-19, Higher Ed, News

UNC System Interim President: “We can and must do better as individuals, as leaders, as a country, and as a society”

This week UNC System leaders continue to issue statements on the killing of George Floyd, police violence and the protests across the state and nation.

On Tuesday UNC System Interim President Bill Roper sent a message to the chancellors of the system’s 17 campuses.

Roper’s message, in full:

Dear Chancellors:

From last week through this week I have been reading some of your statements on Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and now George Floyd. Witnessing another young black man die at the hands of those who were sworn to protect and serve has left me at a loss for words. I felt and continue to feel anger, sorrow, and grief, for our entire country, but especially for the families of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd’s stepmother, who works at Fayetteville State University.

 I want to draw your attention to some recent statements by Chancellors Martin, Gilliam, and Woodson that have given me some small degree of comfort, hope, and unvarnished truth.

UNC Greensboro Chancellor Frank Gilliam said, “to sustain our democracy, and enact our shared values of freedom, prosperity, equality, safety, and a brighter future for our children, we must solve our problems collaboratively. People are mistaken if they believe the outcry over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis is the singular cause of protests across the country. Rather the protests are the expression of mounting frustration over the country’s inability to solve the systemic inequities central to quality of life.”

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper.

N.C. A&T University Chancellor Harold Martin wrote about the vantage point of the university, and the tools and knowledge our faculty and students can bring: “If the aftermath of George Floyd’s death is, indeed, not to be mere protest but a predicate for change in which minds, hearts, policies and practices are forever altered, it will only do so if it is nourished by knowledge and truth. Let us commit ourselves collectively to surfacing those invaluable ingredients of change.”

N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson said, “we have the responsibility to educate ourselves and those who pass through our doors to overcome ignorance, unite against intolerance, model inclusivity, and advance the dignity and power of diversity.”

 I couldn’t agree more. We can and must do better as individuals, as leaders, as a country, and as a society. I am grateful for the work you are doing to support your campus and surrounding communities. We are committed to continue providing a safe environment that is rooted in belonging and where the personal rights, lives, and dignity of everyone matters.

This is a time of deep sadness and mourning. But with knowledge comes responsibility. Now that we know, what are we going to do, each of us? Let us continue to support our communities, fight for change, and build bridges that unite us all.”

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC-Chapel Hill faculty push back on reopening plans, may “vote with their feet”

After more than an hour of questions with UNC-Chapel Hill Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin Monday, members of the school’s Faculty Executive Committee said they still feel confused and uncomfortable about the school’s plan to return to on-campus instruction Aug. 10.

The chief complaint: Faculty and staff were not a significant part of the UNC System decision to re-open campuses to students in the fall semester and are still unclear on how many classes they will be expected to teach in person as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The committee is working on a campus-wide faculty survey about re-opening, which could be go out by the end of this week. But several faculty members pressed Blouin on the degree to which faculty will have the autonomy to decide whether and how they teach in-person.

Beth Mayer-Davis, chair of the Department of Nutrition, said department heads are conflicted about how to balance risk when talking with faculty members about teaching under pandemic conditions.

“What would be the response, what would be your thoughts, if it turns out that…say, 90 percent of the courses end up being remote or primarily remote, partly because faculty understand we have to be able to provide remote access or options for international students who aren’t able to come to campus anyway?” Mayer-Davis said.

Beth Mayer-Davis

“It could be that faculty and students just sort of vote with their feet, so to speak,” Mayer-Davis said.

Blouin responded by framing the question primarily as a financial one.

“The problem is that if you have a very high ‘melt’ either in terms of students don’t come or students stay away … you will have some school by school issues you’ll have to face as a school,” Blouin said. “Many of those school by school issues are financial, that there will be a loss of resources. That’s not a reason to do it or not to do it but it will be an outcome, and it’s a substantial outcome.”

“When you look at the undergraduate program, I think a melt of around 10 percent translates to somewhere around $50-$75 million,” Blouin said. “Given the fact that 85 percent of our budget is generally faculty or staff salaries…you can appreciate one of the potential outcomes with student melt.”

Blouin’s comments got a number of negative responses from faculty. They said they are tired of getting financial answers when asking essential safety questions in the midst of an ongoing pandemic that threatens the health of students, faculty and staff.

Read more

Education, Higher Ed, race

UNCG Chancellor Frank Gilliam: I am filled with sadness and anger

On Sunday, as protests against police violence and racial inequity continued in cities across the state and nation, UNC-Greensboro Chancellor Frank Gilliam sent a message to the university community.

Gilliam, one of the UNC System’s few Black chancellors, grew up in suburban Minneapolis. He reflected on the killing of George Floyd in that city, his own experience with police harassment and his fears for his son, who lives in Los Angeles. He also talked about racial disparities closer to home, including on his own campus.

His weekend message, in full:

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

To sustain our democracy, and enact our shared values of freedom, prosperity, equality, safety, and a brighter future for our children, we must solve our problems collaboratively. People are mistaken if they believe the outcry over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis is the singular cause of protests across the country. Rather the protests are the expression of mounting frustration over the country’s inability to solve the systemic inequities central to quality of life. Justice in the criminal system is just one of a litany of problems that confront minorities (and black Americans in particular) including equal access to food, health care, decent housing, jobs, and schools. This has not happened overnight. It has been festering close to the surface for decades (if not centuries).

What do I mean? Here is one local example of a broader problem – food insecurity, or the lack of access to fresh food. Last week, my wife Jacquie and I were at Spartan Open Pantry (a nonprofit designed to provide food, clothing, and hygiene products to students who can’t afford these items)

UNCG Chancellor Frank Gilliam.

delivering food that is used to feed people who do not have anything to eat. The executive director told us that while 23% of the UNCG students are black, 50% of their clientele is black. He told us that some students come to the Pantry having not eaten in two or three days.

But I want to bring this discussion back to the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis. This hits close to home. This is personal. I am a black man. I have a black son. I went to high school in suburban Minneapolis. My parents lived there for 35 years. One evening I was detained by local police in front of my parent’s driveway. I asked why they stopped me, they said I “looked suspicious.” I often think that maybe things would have turned out differently that night if I had made one false move.

And closer to the bone, I worry about my 21-year-old son (who lives in Los Angeles) being stopped by the police. I have had the “talk” with him. If you don‘t know, the ”talk” is a conversation most black parents have with their black sons about how to behave when they encounter law enforcement and, in fact, how to navigate the world as a young black man. It is uncomfortable but necessary. Think about that. Think about how that would make you feel.

I wrestled with this all weekend. But I finally had to sit down and put thoughts to paper.

I am filled with sadness for the Floyd family (as well as the families of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, unfortunately the list goes on), for the country, and for my son. I’m filled with sadness for our young people – particularly the black students at UNCG. We owe them better than this. I’m filled with sadness for the hardworking and dedicated law enforcement folks who do things the right way.

But to be honest, I’m also filled with anger. I’m mad that we can’t seem to come together to find commonsense solutions to the nation’s problems. Mad that the direction we are heading is not sustainable where in a post-COVID-19 world it is likely we will see more inequality not less.

I know there are a lot of people in the country, in Greensboro, and on our own campus who are sad and angry too. Many of our nonblack friends and colleagues have written or called and asked what they can do: how do we fix this?

One answer is that this is all about “public will.” That’s the collective sense of people coming together with a good heart and common sense to solve problems. For example, we know what a good education looks like, we know what quality health care looks like, and we even know how to reform the criminal justice system. But are we willing? Are we willing to buy into the notion that we have a “shared fate” regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or party affiliation? Are people willing to change how institutions work in this country so that all people are treated fairly?

If we are willing, we can provide our children and grandchildren with a better tomorrow. If we are not, this will not be sustainable in the long run. By nature, I am an optimist. I get to work every day with faculty and staff who fuel this sense of hope; and I get to see thousands of students each year on our campus who make me believe that we can do more, do better. I have faith that we can come together and meet the challenges head on. I hope we have the will to do so.

Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr.
Chancellor