Colleges Lock Out Blind Students Online

Photographs by David Wallace for The Chronicle

Darrell Shandrow, a journalism student who is blind, can navigate around Arizona State U. just fine (above, he uses Foursquare, a location-based cellphone app). But he was stymied by Spanish 101, which uses an online workbook inaccessible to blind students.
December 12, 2010

More than 19,000 people have visited a new student union that Arizona State University put up last year to build a better sense of campus community.

Darrell Shandrow, a blind senior studying journalism, can't get through the front door.

He's stuck because the new social hub is built of bits, not bricks—a private Facebook application for Arizona State students. And, like so much technology used by colleges, the software doesn't work with the programs that blind people depend on to navigate the Web.

"Basically, I'm locked out," Mr. Shandrow, 37, says.

So are many others. Colleges that wouldn't dare put up a new building without wheelchair access now routinely roll out digital services that, for blind people, are the Internet equivalent of impassable stairs. Roughly 75,000 students at colleges and trade schools are visually impaired, according to Education Department figures. Barriers to access could deny them equal learning opportunities. And colleges are finding that the problems are lawsuit bait, generating litigation and complaints.

This is a distressing trend because technology should actually benefit the blind. Mr. Shandrow's life is a daily demonstration of that potential. In his apartment near the campus here, he uses text-to-speech software that reads Web sites out loud. To get around town, he runs iPhone applications that identify nearby buildings and even the bills in his wallet. He also blogs, tweets, shoots video, and hosts an online radio show.

But even though he can navigate so much of the world, Mr. Shandrow hit a wall when he got to Spanish 101. The obstacle: an online workbook that failed to correctly label images.

The Chronicle, after more than two dozen interviews and a review of federal records and recent research, found widespread access problems like that.

Some other examples:

  • College Web pages are "widely inaccessible" to people with disabilities, according to a recent National Science Foundation-backed study that looked at 127 institutions in the Northwest over five years. A recent study of 183 colleges, nationwide, found similar problems. (See table.)
  • Many colleges have no centralized way to ensure that online courses comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, says a November report from the Campus Computing Project and the Wiche Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications.
  • At one of the country's most prominent public institutions, Pennsylvania State University, blind students and professors suffer "pervasive and ongoing discrimination" because of inaccessible campus technology, says a federal complaint filed in November by the country's largest organization of blind people. The complaint names problem areas that include Penn State's library catalog, departmental Web sites, and, crucially, its "almost totally inaccessible" course-management software.
  • At Arizona State last year, advocates including Mr. Shandrow sued the institution over its use of Amazon's Kindle e-reader, which lacked audible menus for blind people. Arizona State agreed that it would strive to use accessible devices if it deployed e-book readers in classes over the next two years.

"In a number of respects, blind students are at a greater disadvantage today than they were 20 years ago," says Daniel F. Goldstein, counsel to the National Federation of the Blind, who filed the complaint against Penn State. (Both that university and Arizona State have responded to complaints by stating that they are committed to accessible learning for all.)

The Vision Problem

For Mr. Shandrow, the Kindle suit was the latest episode in a long and sometimes lonely fight to get people to care about this issue, a fight that has put him at odds with technology companies, colleges, other advocates for the blind, employers, even his own family.

It's much more than just the use of e-readers that bugs him about Arizona State. For instance, there's the technology adopted by the journalism school, in Phoenix, whose modern downtown campus Mr. Shandrow reaches by light rail. Arizona State participates in News21, a national multimedia project that aims to "train a new generation of journalists capable of reshaping the news industry." But News21 uses an online video player that gives Mr. Shandrow's screen reader a fit.

Daily frustrations like that drive his one-man advocacy war. When he finds a problem, which is often, the journalism student doesn't hesitate to shame the offender with a volley of messages to his 1,100 Twitter followers.

This tendency has earned him criticism from other advocates. Publicly scolding people rather than privately counseling them may actually do more harm than good, they argue. And some other blind students don't get all the fuss. Rhonda S. Partain, 46, remembers the misery of her student life in the early 1980s. Inaccessible technology? Try a typewriter. You might write three blank pages, she says, before realizing that your machine had run out of ink. With computers, however imperfect, she was recently able to complete an online degree at Liberty University.

"This is immensely better," she says. "Some of these people who are complaining now should have known how it was then, and they wouldn't complain so much."

Mr. Shandrow takes a harder line. Accessibility is a "human right," in his view. If a sighted person can use a piece of technology, he should be able to as well.

In person, his appearance is as loud as his advocacy. Unlike some blind people, who favor inconspicuous short canes, Mr. Shandrow scrapes the sidewalk with a 63-inch staff that extends beyond his ear. "People can see—they should watch where they're going," he explains. "I'm here!" His belt advertises his presence, too, with a large turquoise-and-silver buckle and "Darrell" engraved in the leather. About the only thing he hides are his eyes, blinded since childhood by glaucoma and veiled behind gold-tinted aviator sunglasses.

Mr. Shandrow became a hardened activist as a teen. Craving a mainstream education, he tried to transfer to a local public school from the Arizona State School for the Deaf and the Blind. Officials discouraged him, he says, with irksome questions: How would he go to the bathroom? Eat lunch? Long story short: His family went to court, and won access to public school.

That early struggle changed him, says Mr. Shandrow's wife, Karen, during a late-November dinner at an Applebee's restaurant in Tempe. Her guide dog, a golden-retriever/black-Lab cross named Joyce, slurps from a bowl of ice cubes at her feet. Karen, too, is blind.

Her husband realized early on that blind people can't depend on others to get their needs met, she says. They need to do everything in their power to fight for themselves. Everything.

"He's still an ethical person and stuff," she continues. "But—"

"I'm willing to go pretty far if I feel the need to," says Mr. Shandrow, finishing the sentence.

How far?

He smiles. "Let's just say anything short of violence or terrorism or something like that. Anything short of that goes. Do anything, say anything, to get accessibility."

E-Reader Trouble

In 2009, he got the chance to make a big splash for the cause.

Amazon was touting its Kindle e-reader in the textbook market with college pilot programs. Advocates for the blind like the National Federation, angry because of the device's inaccessibility, wanted to shape this emerging market by taking a tough legal stance.

And Mr. Shandrow was in a position to help, since Arizona State, where he had returned in 2008 after dropping out in the 1990s, was one of Amazon's pilot partners. It wasn't a perfect position, because the university's pilot program was limited to the honors college, to which Mr. Shandrow didn't belong, so the program didn't directly affect him.

Still, when a lawyer on the case reached out to him, his answer was instant: "Sign me up."

The fight hit Mr. Shandrow close to home. In the 1990s, he "virtually bombed out" his first two semesters of college and withdrew from most classes, largely because of a lack of textbooks in Braille or electronic format. Nearly two decades later, access to books remains a very thorny issue. Many publishers have "dragged their feet" making textbooks available in alternate formats, says Jack Trammell, director of disability-support services at Randolph-Macon College, in Virginia. That creates delays and leaves colleges scrambling to figure out alternative fixes, such as scanning books themselves.

Amazon's Kindle had the potential to avoid such problems. Unlike ink on paper, digital texts aren't inherently visual or aural, advocates argue, so they should be equally accessible to blind or sighted users. In fact, the Kindle did come with text-to-speech technology. But its menus were not accessible to blind users.

Mr. Shandrow's family begged him to stay out of the fight: "When I told my father-in-law about it, he just about went crazy. He said that I would ruin my chances for future employment, and people would see me as a troublemaker."

Mr. Shandrow was willing to take the risk. In June 2009, he joined the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind in suing Arizona State to block it from deploying the Kindle. The groups also filed complaints about Kindle pilots at five other colleges.

The outcome was mixed. Since Mr. Shandrow was ineligible for the Kindle pilot, a judge dismissed him from the case for failing to identify "any clear policy by ASU that will in any way impact him." But then, in January, Arizona State agreed to settle the case. Denying any legal violation, the university said it would strive to use only accessible e-book readers for a two-year period. Similar agreements were soon reached between the Justice Department and other colleges identified by the advocates.

In Washington, meanwhile, federal authorities seized on the Kindle controversy to broadcast a sharp message to colleges nationwide: Requiring inaccessible e-readers may run afoul of the law. The warning came in a public letter released jointly by the Departments of Justice and Education.

"It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students," the government said.

Assistance From Alex

Yet they continue to do just that, Mr. Shandrow says, and a visit to a darkened room in his apartment shows how. He calls this his accessibility command center. The dusty tangle of cords, headphones, gadgets, and Kit Kat wrappers gives off a vibe like a hacker's nocturnal den. Speakers above the desk fill the room with a serene robotic voice that sounds like Hal, the murderous computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The sound is Alex, Apple's name for one of the voice options in the text-to-speech feature that is built into Macs. Alex speaks both the words on Web pages and the stage directions that blind people need to surf them: navigation buttons, links, images, punctuation.

You could spend days listening to Alex crash into inaccessibility roadblocks. There's Arizona State's new virtual student union, for instance. It's actually a Facebook application, sold to colleges by a company called Inigral. People can use it to find classmates with the same major or see if anyone has an extra ticket to the Roger Waters concert. But to do that, they have to read guidelines and click a button that says, "Okay—Let's get started!"

Or, in Alex-speak: Okay. Dash. Let's get started. Button.

But Mr. Shandrow can't start, because of an accessibility flaw that is common online. Like most blind people, he controls his computer with a keyboard, not a mouse. This "start" button isn't keyboard-enabled.

There are problems with online courseware, too. Last year Mr. Shandrow took a Spanish class that used an online workbook from a company called Quia Web. It was filled with unlabeled images. Such labels, part of the code under the hood of Web pages, are crucial because screen readers use them to describe pictures. Their absence forced Mr. Shandrow to depend on a sighted aide when he took the class. (The image problem is not limited to higher education. The Chronicle's Web site, for instance, lacks text describing many images for blind readers.)

Inaccessibility is a major issue for the movement to post educational content free on the Internet. Hundreds of colleges have spent tens of millions of dollars producing lecture videos, notes, syllabi, and other free online materials. But Hal Plotkin, a senior policy adviser in the Education Department, says he would be surprised if more than 10 percent of these open educational resources are fully accessible. That flaw has "dramatically" held back their deployment, says Mr. Plotkin, a former community-college trustee in California.

Public institutions "will not use these materials," Mr. Plotkin says, "because the lawsuits that would follow would be inevitable, and very costly."

And that's too bad, because Alex also shows that some of this software is pretty attractive once past the initial hurdles. After a reporter helps Mr. Shandrow get inside the Inigral Facebook program, for example, he doesn't have much trouble moving around. In fact, he likes it. He's a tech geek with a new toy, one he admits "could be a fun app." He finds a comment posted by a woman, soon to be 28, who says how nice it is that the app has a group for "older students."

"Are you kidding? You're only 28?" Mr. Shandrow says, rocking back and forth with a smile on his face. "I'm 37, girl. C'mon! I'm old!"

Under her post, he tries another button used for quick evaluations of Facebook posts, and it works fine: "Like."

Adjusting Attitudes

What he doesn't like is the attitude of many software developers, who often fail to consider accessibility. When The Chronicle asks whether the Facebook application is accessible to blind people, Michael Staton, chief executive of Inigral, gives a simple answer: "No." But he quickly points out that students aren't required to use it. "It's all just part of the social experience," he says.

Still, inaccessibility can be bad for business. One college Inigral had been talking with went with a competing product because blind people could use it, Mr. Staton says.

So does he plan to make his technology accessible? "I wouldn't know how to approach that at the moment," he says.

Mr. Shandrow and others argue that the right approach is for universities to force companies to include accessibility by refusing to buy their products without it. What tends to happen, though, is that the issue gets dealt with later, when students report problems to campus disability-services offices.

As a result of their history handling accessibility through these offices, college officials have been "lulled into complacency on this issue," says Deborah Kaplan, who directed California State University's Accessible Technology Initiative until this year.

An Arizona State spokeswoman declined to discuss Mr. Shandrow's specific allegations. But in general, the university bases its technology choices on cost, functionality, suitability, and accessibility, says the spokeswoman, Sharon Keeler. And ASU is committed to "providing access to all programs and facilities for students with disabilities."

She added, "We undertake efforts to provide reasonable accommodations when the students make us aware of the need for them."

Penn State, too, says it is committed to accommodating students. It complies with the law by doing things like making sighted aides available to help with inaccessible technology, says a spokeswoman, Annemarie Mountz. It's also studying new course software, including tests by blind students. "What we're finding is that all of these learning-management systems have accessibility issues," she says.

There are hopeful signs. California State University has shown how powerful colleges can be when they make access a high priority. The nation's largest public-college system turns its size into influence by denying problem companies access to its market of 430,000 students. That helped push Apple, Google, and Blackboard to upgrade their products for the blind. (See related article.)

Blackboard got so much better that in March, the National Federation of the Blind lauded the company for "great improvement" in the latest release of its course-management software. Navigation is smoother, and so are the forms, allowing blind students to do things like submit assignments and participate in discussions. Blackboard even offers a self-paced course for professors to get guidance on building accessible classes.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department is considering amending the ADA's regulations to specify that the Web, like a building, is covered by the law.

Alex J. Hurder, a clinical professor at Vanderbilt University Law School, says the potential changes are "a big deal," because anyone in the business of preparing content for the Internet "would be warned in advance that you need to take these factors into consideration when you're preparing your programs. Otherwise the market will dry up for you, and nobody will be allowed to buy them."

A hearing on these issues is scheduled for December 16 in Washington. Mr. Shandrow, guided through the capital by his iPhone app, will be there.

Jeffrey Brainard provided additional reporting for this article.