From AHEAD President Jamie Axelrod: An Opportunity Missed

Students with disabilities, attending the University of California at Berkeley, are deservedly honored as leaders in founding the modern disability rights movement, in America, and around the world. They were highly instrumental in the passage and implementation of America's two great laws protecting individuals with disabilities from discrimination, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Consequently, the disability community everywhere, looks to the University to lead, innovate, and set a positive example in developing and protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. The University's March 1, 2017 announcement that the University will remove its free public access to online libraries of more than 20,000 video-recordings of UC class lectures, in the name of compliance with Section 504 and the ADA, does not meet this expectation.

Providing a wealth of highly-valued information on-line, prepared by Berkeley's distinguished faculty, for the benefit of anyone eager to learn, regardless of means, is a noble public service worthy of a great university. This mission should not be curtailed as a means to achieving technical compliance with Section 504 and the ADA. The Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), calls upon U.C. Berkeley to harmonize its equalitarian goals and its role as a disability rights leader by finding and adopting a better way of extending informational equality to all individuals.

We understand that on March 15, the University made its on-line recorded classes available only to registered Berkeley students, so that it may caption or make other accommodations on a "case-by-case" basis to identified enrolled students with disabilities. While this approach may allow the University to comply with the letter of the law, in AHEAD's experience, this will not prove to be an effective approach to providing timely and equally effective access to critical communications. In higher education, adoption of "universal design" policies and practices is the overwhelming trend in structured negotiation agreements, settlements, and court decisions concerning digital equality. These decisions and agreements reflect considerable disappointment with ad hoc or "only when requested" accommodations and recognize the speed at which communications occur in the modern curriculum. This limited approach may sound sufficient to achieve compliance, but in practice it is likely to be unreliable, inefficient, and unnecessarily expensive. When processes are in place which allow all video resources to contain captions when first posted, nothing has to be taken down or remediated after the fact, to comply with disability law.

AHEAD recommends that the University works collaboratively with the disability community and digital access experts to find a better approach. Moreover, AHEAD stands prepared to point the University in the direction of the cost-savings and enhanced access for all students entailed in universal design, to identify for it some of the most efficient and effective universal approaches to communication access, as well as the best-qualified experts. Nothing compels the University to choose between sharing its intellectual resources with people regardless of their means and sharing its resources with individuals who are deaf or blind. Better, well-known, paths to access, worthy of the University, exist and should be adopted.

Jamie Axelrod
President, Association on Higher Education and Disability