Larry Gordon/EdSource Today
Los Angeles City College, one of the state's 116 community colleges.

In a case some say could have a profound impact on disabled students’ rights, California’s largest community college district is planning to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court a case centered on blind students’ access to textbooks, handouts and other classroom materials in a format they can understand.

Arguing that federal disability rights laws don’t cover unintentional discrimination, the Los Angeles Community College District board of trustees has announced it would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court’s ruling in favor of the students. But in hopes of settling the case before it reaches the high court, the board also plans to ask for a 60-day extension to allow negotiations to continue. The deadline for the extension is Jan. 3.

“(We’re directing our attorneys) to engage immediately in negotiations to identify a constructive and mutually beneficial resolution to successfully resolve the matter,” said board President Gabriel Buelna. “The district is committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and access for all students, especially those with disabilities or other needs, to pursue their higher education.”

The case stems from a 2017 lawsuit brought by two blind students, Roy Payan and Portia Mason, who claimed the district did not provide important academic materials, such as algebra textbooks and syllabi, in an audio or Braille format. The result was that the students could not complete classes required to transfer to a four-year college.

Some blind students had to wade through years of bureaucratic delays to obtain materials in a suitable format, while others had to hire tutors to read the material aloud. Other students just gave up and dropped out, said Patricia Barbosa, an attorney representing the plaintiffs.

Even worse, Barbosa said, the district assigned blind students who were unable to take math classes into a class they had even less ability to participate in: film. The district did not immediately explain why this happened.

“Education is a magic bullet for people who are disabled. It allows them to get out of poverty, gain independence, move their lives forward,” Barbosa said. “The whole purpose of the community college district is to offer an education to marginalized people. In this case, they did not do that.”

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, colleges, employers and other organizations must provide the same opportunities and rights to disabled people as they do to nondisabled people. For blind students enrolled in college, that means classroom materials must be in Braille or a digital format that can convert to audio.

Colleges typically have offices dedicated to helping disabled students obtain whatever extra help they need. But at Los Angeles Community College, help was not always available, Payan said.

He tried taking algebra four or five times, he said, with no success. Most instructors said they couldn’t convert handouts to audio-friendly files because they didn’t know how. When Payan requested an audio version of the textbook, an administrator said the textbook company wouldn’t provide it because the college didn’t have enough blind students to make it worthwhile. One of Payan’s math instructors proposed enlarging the type on handouts.

“I said, ‘You can make it the size of a car, I still can’t see it,’” said Payan, who’s been blind for more than a decade.

Payan ended up hiring a tutor to read the algebra material aloud. He passed the class, which allowed him to transfer to California State University, Los Angeles, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration. He’s now a doctoral student at the University of Southern California studying public policy.

“My hope with this lawsuit is that the district fixes the problem. Disabled students should not have to beg on their hands and knees for an education,” Payan said. “It’s too late for me, but this is for all the blind students who come after me.”

An estimated 300 blind students were enrolled in the nine-campus, 220,000-student district in 2018-19, according to data compiled by the California Community Colleges. Overall, the district has more than 5,000 disabled students.

Payan and Mason, along with the National Federation of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind of California, filed their initial suit in the federal District Court of Central California. A judge in 2019 sided mostly with the plaintiffs. The district appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled 2-1 this fall in favor of the students. The dissenting vote was from a judge nominated in 2019 by President Donald Trump, who wrote in support of the district’s argument about unintentional discrimination.

If the court grants the district’s request for a 60-day extension, the delay would expire on March 4.

Claudia Center, an attorney with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, called the district’s appeal “a slap in the face to the disabled community” that could have broad implications for disabled people. Most discrimination is unintentional, she said, and without laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, few institutions would make accommodations for disabled people.

“We don’t want the Supreme Court ruling on what kinds of discrimination are covered by the ADA,” she said. “We think we have a good argument here, and we’re going to defend it.”

William Boyer, a spokesman for the district, said the district will withdraw the appeal if the two sides can reach a resolution.

“The district has a proven track record of reasonable accommodations and supportive services to all students,” he said. “The board of trustees fully supports the Americans with Disabilities Act and welcomes all persons of all abilities, regardless of background or ethnicity, to enroll at any of our nine colleges to pursue their higher education goals.”

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  1. Shaun B 23 hours ago23 hours ago

    College should be for all students even those that are blind or have other disabilities. They need to be provided the tools they need to succeed. They should not have to beg for an education.
    There is no excuse not to provide equal access to education to all people. I sincerely hope that a solution is reached that creates equality and accessibility for all students regardless of protected statuses.

  2. Jenny Arvizu 2 days ago2 days ago

    It is sad to see we are having this problem at this point in time. Technology is so advanced that this shouldn’t be an issue. Accommodating for the less fortunate is a social duty and money shouldn’t be an issue. In my opinion, the personnel at the support offices should be better trained to deal with situations. If the resources are not available, it is their responsibility to request what is … Read More

    It is sad to see we are having this problem at this point in time. Technology is so advanced that this shouldn’t be an issue. Accommodating for the less fortunate is a social duty and money shouldn’t be an issue. In my opinion, the personnel at the support offices should be better trained to deal with situations. If the resources are not available, it is their responsibility to request what is needed and not just say they can’t help. Their answer should always be, “Let me see what I can do.”

  3. Amanda Durao 3 days ago3 days ago

    Unconscious bias is still considered bias. Unintentional discrimination is still discrimination. Discrimination should never be occurring on school campuses, particularly city colleges. As an LACCD graduate myself, it is terribly discouraging to read the discrimination that is occurring at a school that should be helping those who are marginalized. Yet, here LACCD is, marginalizing blind students and in turn marginalizing all students with disabilities. Most discrimination occurs unintentionally, which does not make it a lesser … Read More

    Unconscious bias is still considered bias. Unintentional discrimination is still discrimination. Discrimination should never be occurring on school campuses, particularly city colleges. As an LACCD graduate myself, it is terribly discouraging to read the discrimination that is occurring at a school that should be helping those who are marginalized.

    Yet, here LACCD is, marginalizing blind students and in turn marginalizing all students with disabilities. Most discrimination occurs unintentionally, which does not make it a lesser form of discrimination. Students who are simply asking for materials to succeed should not have to go to these lengths in order to get their needs met. With that, students who cannot receive the materials they need in order to simply complete a class, should not have to pay out of their own pocket for tutors. Those should be provided by the school, at the very least. Students with disabilities have the right to materials that will help them succeed in school yet this district is stifling these students and their ability to succeed.

  4. Erick Herrera 3 days ago3 days ago

    My hope is to shame the LACCD board for doing what they are trying to do to all students with disabilities.
    They are trying to convince the Supreme Court to strike down the ADA as unconstitutional much as the Republicans have done with Roe versus Wade or the Civil Rights Act.

  5. Martina Ramos 4 days ago4 days ago

    College should be for all students even those that are blind. They need to be provided the tools they need to succeed. They should not have to beg for an education.

  6. Irma Durazo 4 days ago4 days ago

    Shame on you LACC and your board of trustees. 300 blind students and 5000 disabled student from which the Federal government providers funds for. You can’t or won’t find a solution to help disabled students. But bring on the money! What is the money going towards? how do to you justify the misuse of funds? You were caught with your hand in the cookie jar... Shame on you LACC and your board of trustees. The time … Read More

    Shame on you LACC and your board of trustees.

    300 blind students and 5000 disabled student from which the Federal government providers funds for. You can’t or won’t find a solution to help disabled students. But bring on the money! What is the money going towards? how do to you justify the misuse of funds? You were caught with your hand in the cookie jar…

    Shame on you LACC and your board of trustees.
    The time is Now … not tomorrow to fix this problem and stop making excuses as to why you can’t or won’t help disabled student.

    Shame on you LACC and your board of trustees.
    Does your admissions website state: Disabled students have limited accommodations and resources so, you may not may not pass your courses as a result? I bet it doesn’t.

    Shame on you LACC and your board of trustees.
    No more excuses…. Unintentionally or not, LACC and it’s board of trustees are in violation of the peoples with disability act.

    Shame on you LACC and your board of trustees.
    How many disabled students have you turned away with the excuses of we can’t accommodate your needs, find your own tutor, find a different way to learn, or simply say sorry, we can’t help you! How frustrating it must have been for so many students who wanted to fight the system but simply didn’t have the resources or simply gave up!
    Audit LACCs records lets really find out how they’re using the disability funds.

    Shame on you LACC and your board of trustees.

  7. Alice Torres 5 days ago5 days ago

    These schools have been receiving federal funding for years to provide resources, textbooks and material for students with disabilities. How was it that they received funds and somehow didn’t do anything for those students with visual disabilities? Isn’t anyone overseeing if federal funds are being used appropriately? And by appropriately, I mean that those funds are being used to benefit students of all disabilities that are in pursuit of higher education.

  8. Belinda Santana 5 days ago5 days ago

    Disabled students should have the tools they need to complete required classes for their education. Students dropping out or having to hire tutors at their own expense is an embarrassment. The district needs to do better.

  9. Phil 5 days ago5 days ago

    I hope this gets resolved immediately because everyone deserves an education and goals that they want to achieve.

  10. Janet Velasco 5 days ago5 days ago

    As a Cal State LA student with a learning disability, I depend on audible format textbook material to succeed in my courses. Therefore, I can relate to Payan's struggle to obtain access, audible material. Being a student with no visual impairment, I empathize with my visually impaired classmates. Their inability to access is more troublesome than mine. It takes a toll investing in ways to gain the same accessibility for the material; we have no … Read More

    As a Cal State LA student with a learning disability, I depend on audible format textbook material to succeed in my courses. Therefore, I can relate to Payan’s struggle to obtain access, audible material. Being a student with no visual impairment, I empathize with my visually impaired classmates. Their inability to access is more troublesome than mine.

    It takes a toll investing in ways to gain the same accessibility for the material; we have no audio access compared to those students with no disabilities who have access to in-class material. If we were not resilient, we would have given up at the junior college level. Changes in college need to be made; It is vital for students with disabilities not to be discouraged from higher education because of the lack of accessibilities.

  11. A. Rosas 5 days ago5 days ago

    Inclusion of all people with disabilities should include all accommodations an individual needs. We can’t pick and choose and call it equality as every need is unique; therefore, school districts should have already resolved the issue in accommodating visually impaired students with textbooks/syllabi in the appropriate form to meet their accommodations needs.

  12. Ben Hammitt 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Couldn’t all of this have been avoided if they just hired Registrars and Guidance Counselors that knew what they were doing?

  13. el 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Why are they spending money on lawyers to appeal this instead of simply fixing the problem? There are experts out there who will tell you how to teach algebra to blind students. You can find tools out there with a google search - materials, resources, videos, and talks came up for me. The students should not have to hire their own tutors with such an obvious need - imagine how many tutors could have been hired … Read More

    Why are they spending money on lawyers to appeal this instead of simply fixing the problem?

    There are experts out there who will tell you how to teach algebra to blind students. You can find tools out there with a google search – materials, resources, videos, and talks came up for me. The students should not have to hire their own tutors with such an obvious need – imagine how many tutors could have been hired for the cost of the legal battle.

    “Some blind students had to wade through years of bureaucratic delays” – honestly, a student shouldn’t have to prove that they have a special need to get these accommodations. Simply asking should be sufficient.

    Interestingly, many of the people who use tools for the visually impaired aren’t completely blind. They may have some vision. People with traumatic brain injuries often benefit from screen readers, especially at the end of the day when they are more tired. Indeed, I have no specific disability, but I have found the built-in system screen readers (they are built into both Mac and PC operating systems) can help me follow extremely technical content by forcing me to slow down and listen and read at the same time. These tools are beneficial for more students than people who are completely without any vision.