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Blind Florida State U. Students Sue Over E-Learning Systems

Two blind students at Florida State University have sued the institution and its Board of Trustees for discrimination, arguing that a mathematics course at the university relied on e-learning systems that were not accessible to the disabled.

The students, Christopher S. Toth and Jamie A. Principato, say they were unable to access software used for homework and tests in their fall of 2009 math class. They say the course also relied on “clickers”—small remote-control units that allow students to answer multiple-choice questions during lectures—which were not accessible to them. They argue in their legal complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, that the university is required under the Americans With Disabilities Act to make such classroom materials accessible or provide viable alternatives.

The students’ case was filed with help from the National Federation of the Blind, which has filed similar accessibility complaints against Pennsylvania State University and, most recently, against Northwestern University and New York University.

The online software used at Florida State, called eGrade, is incompatible with screen readers, which allows blind users to translate text to speech, the students say. The mathematics department also required students to use a type of clicker called PRS transmitters, which the students say do not accommodate blind users.

Daniel F. Goldstein, a lawyer who is representing the students, said that his firm has dealt with several complaints from students regarding software and clicker inaccessibility, and he argued that accessibility of technology is quickly becoming an issue as universities increase their use of digital tools in the classroom.

“We’re trying to get this on the radar of colleges and universities,” Mr. Goldstein said. “It’s a race because all of this technology is multiplying at a tremendous pace.” He recommended that universities evaluate applications prior to campuswide implementation, as California State University did in its Accessible Technology Initiative.

Mr. Toth, a computer-science major, had tried to pass a math class three times to meet state requirements that students pursuing bachelor’s degrees complete or test out of two math courses. Despite having arranged for accommodations through the university’s disability services, both Mr. Toth and Ms. Principato were denied Braille copies of the class textbook, and the professor failed to provide them with accessible versions of his lecture notes, they allege.

Bea Awoniyi, director of the Student Disability Resource Center at the university, said the center continues to grapple with accessibility issues that arise out of technological advances, but she also acknowledged that this particular case was unique in that students had cited issues with a specific department.

The center continues  to work with the Office for Civil Rights “to make sure that some compliance issues that were raised have been addressed,” Ms. Awoniyi said.

Officials for John Wiley & Son, which publishes the eGrade software, did not return e-mailed requests for comment on Wednesday.

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