Damian Williams, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced a voluntary compliance agreement under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) with the City University of New York (“CUNY”) pursuant to which CUNY will provide individual relief to a student with visual impairments who was excluded from full participation in their academic courses and implement systemwide policies to ensure future compliance with the ADA across CUNY’s 25 colleges in the five boroughs of New York City, which collectively serve 243,000 students.
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said: “It is simply unacceptable that any student should be denied equal access to an education because of a disability. We are pleased that CUNY has agreed to provide relief to the student whose education was compromised and that CUNY is committed to improving the accessibility of its courses, including online and digital content, for all future students.”
Title II of the ADA prohibits public entities from discriminating against any individual on the basis of disability by excluding the individual from participation in services, programs, and activities. The ADA requires public entities to make reasonable modifications to avoid such discrimination and to administer their services, programs, and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities, including by furnishing appropriate auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication.
The out-of-court agreement resolves an investigation during which the U.S. Attorney’s Office determined that CUNY failed to provide reasonable accommodations required under the ADA for a student with visual impairments at CUNY’s John Jay School of Criminal Justice and identified shortcomings in CUNY’s accessibility and reasonable accommodation policies and procedures. Specifically, the investigation found, among other things, that CUNY failed to make qualified learning assistants available to ensure an integrated learning setting for the student in numerous science and mathematics courses. Additionally, John Jay instructors required students to use WebAssign, a third-party online learning product, to complete assignments, but that digital platform was not fully capable of reading out mathematical and scientific symbols and equations. Furthermore, John Jay repeatedly failed to make usable versions of required textbooks and other course materials available to the student by the start of courses. The student made a number of attempts to bring the deficiencies to the attention of staff at John Jay and CUNY, but neither John Jay nor CUNY had adequate policies and procedures to ensure that reasonable accommodation requests and related complaints are addressed in a timely and appropriate manner. As a result, the student received unduly poor grades and was forced to forgo taking other desired and required advanced courses for a number of academic years.
CUNY has agreed to prepare and implement systemwide policies to ensure improved accessibility of educational content to visually impaired students, including digital learning content, proper training of staff and faculty, and effective reasonable accommodation and complaint procedures.
Under the agreement, CUNY will permanently purge all of the affected student’s grades in the relevant courses in which reasonable modifications were not provided and pay the student $10,000 in compensatory damages. CUNY will also adopt systemwide policies and procedures to ensure:
- The prompt availability of qualified learning assistants, including by initiating an appropriate and timely search process, involving the relevant affected students in that process, and setting a reasonable level of compensation likely to attract qualified candidates;
- The prompt availability of accessible course materials by the start of the relevant course or as soon as practicable based upon early consultations with affected students;
- Reasonable accommodation and complaint mechanisms based on clear, short deadlines by which accommodation requests and complaints must be addressed and remaining concerns are promptly escalated to higher-level administrators as necessary;
- Information Technology accessibility consistent with the latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, including via verification of the accessibility of third-party learning products and of instructors’ awareness of accessibility requirements for instructor-created content; and
- Training of faculty and accessibility-services staff on ADA requirements.
* * *
This case is being handled by the Office’s Civil Rights Unit in the Civil Division. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Cha-Kim is in charge of the case.