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In Settlement With Disabilities Group, Berkeley Will Improve Access to Course Materials

The University of California at Berkeley has reached a settlement with Disability Rights Advocates in what the group is calling a “landmark agreement” to improve access to textbooks, course readers, and library materials for students with print-related disabilities.

Disability Rights Advocates represented three Berkeley students who said they had difficulty getting access to the materials they needed for class. The group, which is a nonprofit disability-rights legal center, approached the university last year on behalf of the students, proposing settlement negotiations that could resolve the issues and avoid a lawsuit. The negotiations, which took more than a year, led to several new accommodations, said Paul Hippolitus, director of the university’s Disabled Students Program, who called them overdue.

Over the past four years, the program struggled to keep up with a 115-percent increase in the number of textbooks it had to recreate in digital text, Braille, or audio form, Mr. Hippolitus said. Last semester the university created 750 such new versions.

“We had an old model that was not serving us well in this increase of quantity and quality,” Mr. Hippolitus said.

Under the new system, the staff that is dedicated to producing the alternative media will grow from three to five. Until this year, it had been a staff of one, Mr. Hippolitus said. The staff will also be moved to a larger space with new equipment. The new technology and employees will allow the program to offer more support for students and professors, helping answer students’ questions and lobbying faculty members to provide students with advance notice of what reading materials they will require.

The program hadn’t previously been able to offer those services, as the staff had been so busy just producing the materials the students needed, Mr. Hippolitus said.

“We didn’t have the time to attend to those niceties,” he said. “They are really important, but we didn’t have time while getting the books out.”

Additionally, the settlement requires the university to offer alerts and reminders to students to submit what they need in advance of a semester. The students will then get alternative versions of textbooks within 10 business days of a request and alternative course readers within 17 business days. If the wait is too long, students will be able to use self-scanning stations to produce their own materials.

Mr. Hippolitus said the university was not sure how much the new services would cost other than the extra $120,000 in salaries for the program’s new staff members.

The new system will also provide greater access to books in the university’s library. The program will inform the library which students at Berkeley—there are about 70—require the alternative media, and library staff members will scan books for those students using a new $20,000 scanner, Mr. Hippolitus said. The machine is different from the equipment used by Mr. Hippolitus’s program, as it leaves through pages, rather than requiring them to be cut out.

“Prior to the agreement, there was no real, defined process how to create alternative media for library holdings,” Mr. Hippolitus said. “It was kind of a black hole. Now there’s a clarity and a process to support that.”

As students and instructors have increasing access to more media at a quicker pace, the need for improved methods of producing alternatives also grows. At the same time, the number of college students with disabilities is increasing. According to a 2009 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 11 percent of undergraduates have a disability, with most of those students having learning disabilities.

Mr. Hippolitus said universities’ systems must expand and evolve to meet those new challenges for students with disabilities.

“The broad concern is that alternative media across the country is lagging behind, and more and better systems can be created,” he said. “If this is one, we’re happy to make that contribution. If it just stimulates ideas betters than ours, then terrific. We want to know about those ideas. But either way, it gets the conversation started about alternative media.”

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