‘Unintentional Discrimination’ at the Heart of Disability Lawsuit Against CA Community College

Updated: Jan 6

In a case some say could have a profound impact on disabled students’ rights, California’s largest community college district is planning to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court a case centered on blind students’ access to textbooks, handouts and other classroom materials in a format they can understand.


Arguing that federal disability rights laws don’t cover unintentional discrimination, the Los Angeles Community College District board of trustees has announced it would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court’s ruling in favor of the students. But in hopes of settling the case before it reaches the high court, the board also plans to ask for a 60-day extension to allow negotiations to continue. The deadline for the extension is Jan. 3.


“(We’re directing our attorneys) to engage immediately in negotiations to identify a constructive and mutually beneficial resolution to successfully resolve the matter,” said board President Gabriel Buelna. “The district is committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and access for all students, especially those with disabilities or other needs, to pursue their higher education.”


The case stems from a 2017 lawsuit brought by two blind students, Roy Payan and Portia Mason, who claimed the district did not provide important academic materials, such as algebra textbooks and syllabi, in an audio or Braille format. The result was that the students could not complete classes required to transfer to a four-year college.


Some blind students had to wade through years of bureaucratic delays to obtain materials in a suitable format, while others had to hire tutors to read the material aloud. Other students just gave up and dropped out, said Patricia Barbosa, an attorney representing the plaintiffs.


Even worse, Barbosa said, the district assigned blind students who were unable to take math classes into a class they had even less ability to participate in: film. The district did not immediately explain why this happened.


“Education is a magic bullet for people who are disabled. It allows them to get out of poverty, gain independence, move their lives forward,” Barbosa said. “The whole purpose of the community college district is to offer an education to marginalized people. In this case, they did not do that.”


Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, colleges, employers and other organizations must provide the same opportunities and rights to disabled people as they do to nondisabled people. For blind students enrolled in college, that means classroom materials must be in Braille or a digital format that can convert to audio.


Colleges typically have offices dedicated to helping disabled students obtain whatever extra help they need. But at Los Angeles Community College, help was not always available, Payan said.


He tried taking algebra four or five times, he said, with no success. Most instructors said they couldn’t convert handouts to audio-friendly files because they didn’t know how. When Payan requested an audio version of the textbook, an administrator said the textbook company wouldn’t provide it because the college didn’t have enough blind students to make it worthwhile. One of Payan’s math instructors proposed enlarging the type on handouts.


“I said, ‘You can make it the size of a car, I still can’t see it,’” said Payan, who’s been blind for more than a decade.


Payan ended up hiring a tutor to read the algebra material aloud. He passed the class, which allowed him to transfer to California State University, Los Angeles, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration. He’s now a doctoral student at the University of Southern California studying public policy.


“My hope with this lawsuit is that the district fixes the problem. Disabled students should not have to beg on their hands and knees for an education,” Payan said. “It’s too late for me, but this is for all the blind students who come after me.”


An estimated 300 blind students were enrolled in the nine-campus, 220,000-student district in 2018-19, according to data compiled by the California Community Colleges. Overall, the district has more than 5,000 disabled students.


Payan and Mason, along with the National Federation of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind of California, filed their initial suit in the federal District Court of Central California. A judge in 2019 sided mostly with the plaintiffs. The district appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled 2-1 this fall in favor of the students. The dissenting vote was from a judge nominated in 2019 by President Donald Trump, who wrote in support of the district’s argument about unintentional discrimination.


If the court grants the district’s request for a 60-day extension, the delay would expire on March 4.


Claudia Center, an attorney with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, called the district’s appeal “a slap in the face to the disabled community” that could have broad implications for disabled people. Most discrimination is unintentional, she said, and without laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, few institutions would make accommodations for disabled people.


“We don’t want the Supreme Court ruling on what kinds of discrimination are covered by the ADA,” she said. “We think we have a good argument here, and we’re going to defend it.”


William Boyer, a spokesman for the district, said the district will withdraw the appeal if the two sides can reach a resolution.


“The district has a proven track record of reasonable accommodations and supportive services to all students,” he said. “The board of trustees fully supports the Americans with Disabilities Act and welcomes all persons of all abilities, regardless of background or ethnicity, to enroll at any of our nine colleges to pursue their higher education goals.”


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This article was originally published on EdSource.


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