Steve Noble, Accessibility Research Consultant (Guest Writer)
Well, it looks like the National Federation of the Blind is turning up the heat again, and this time it's about math. Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education broke the news about this case on their Wired Campus blog. With the help of the NFB, two blind FSU students are suing the University, claiming that the school violated federal and state law by not making its math classes accessible to them. Although there are several issues involved in the suit, two aspects involve math accessibility: both the math textbook and the math e-learning system (called eGrade) used by FSU were inaccessible to blind students.
According to the suit filed in United States District Court (MS Word document), neither of the students "have been able to successfully complete the math courses required to progress toward their respective degrees", and both "must pay to retake the math courses that, as a result of FSU’s discrimination, they were unable to pass." Further, the suit contends that the University relied upon human readers as one of the primary accommodations for access to math materials, but that "the reader FSU provided was a work-study student who had no mastery of the advanced math concepts needed to read or describe the course materials."
Of special interest in this case is the e-learning system FSU uses for all its math classes. In June 2010, one of the students involved filed a class complaint with the United States Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, addressing the inaccessibility of eGrade. As a result, on December 22, 2010, FSU promised the federal government that it would make eGrade fully accessible by the fall of 2011. A page on the FSU website indicates that some of these changes are in place, but provides no timeline or further details for implementation of the remainder. When attempting to email FSU for an update, I was told that "we can't talk about the details regarding the case at this time, as it is the university's longstanding policy to not comment on litigation that is pending."
One sign that the University has been working on resolving some of these accessibility issues is that one of the publicly viewable pages on FSU's eGrade system includes a practice quiz entitled "Sp10 s1-7 MWF905 Blackwelder Practice for Visually Impaired MathML." Although this sounded hopeful, there was no evidence of MathML on that assignment on Friday of last week. The University has in the meantime password protected that page.
Regardless of one's take on litigation, this lawsuit brings home the urgency of educational institutions using accessible math technologies like MathML. For a more complete discussion of the legal requirements for making math accessible, see What are the public policy issues involved in making math accessible?
Steve Noble is a research consultant with a core focus in mathematics accessibility and assistive technology. Currently he serves on grant-funded research projects with both the University of Kentucky and Bridge Multimedia, and previously served as Director of Accessibility Policy for Design Science.