Community College Lawsuit Highlights the Realities of Disparate Impact

Published January 24, 2022

The Los Angeles Community College District requests an audience with the Supreme Court. The board of trustees for the school district announced they would ask the Supreme Court to consider the ruling against them in favor of students who were discriminated against because of their disability. The students, who are blind, argue that the district was unprepared to provide reasonable accommodations to help them with their studies, while the district claims the discrimination was unintentional.

This case could have a significant impact on the rights of students with disabilities. However, it also shines a light on terminologies like unintended discrimination, disparate impact, and disparate treatment. Learn more about this case and how it can set a precedent for future discrimination claims.

Students claim the district failed to provide reasonable accommodation

In 2017, Roy Payan and Portia Mason, two students who are blind, brought a case against the school district for not providing appropriate materials to help them participate in class. The students requested audio textbooks or materials in Braille, but the college denied their request.

In a response to the request, the college said that there weren’t enough blind students at the university to justify spending money on audio and Braille resources. As a result, some students had to delay their education, retake courses, and even drop out because of a lack of support.

Payan tried to take algebra at least four times before he passed. This is a foundational course that is necessary to apply to four-year universities in the area. The instructors didn’t know how to convert their materials to make them audio-friendly, and one professor suggested enlarging the text to make it more readable.

“I said, ‘You can make it the size of a car, I still can’t see it,’” Payan told EdSource.

Patricia Barbosa, the attorney for the students, reported that after her clients were unable to take the math class, they were placed in a course they were even less able to participate in; film. A film class also isn’t an essential foundational course like algebra or other fundamental math classes.

“The whole purpose of the community college district is to offer an education to marginalized people. In this case, they did not do that,” Barbosa said.

Payan ended up paying a private tutor to read the materials out loud to him. He passed the class and transferred to California State University. He is currently a doctoral student at the University of Southern California studying public policy.

However, the college is adamant that it did nothing wrong. It is arguing that there was unintended discrimination, which means the school cannot be held at fault.

What is unintentional discrimination?

In this case, the district argues that they did not fail to provide reasonable accommodation to the students because it was unintended discrimination. The district argues that federal laws don’t cover unintentional discrimination and so the school did nothing wrong. However, the judges in the case so far disagree. In 2019, a judge sided with the students. When the district went to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, two out of three judges sided again with the students. Now the district wants to move to the Supreme Court.  

“Most discrimination is unintentional,” says Claudia Center, an attorney with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. “Without laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, few institutions would make accommodations for disabled people.”

The district is arguing that it did nothing wrong because it did not mean to create an unwelcoming environment for the students. However, Payan tried to take algebra multiple times, which means the school had multiple semesters to identify solutions to help him navigate the materials. Payan eventually had to hire a private tutor, paying more for the same education as his peers.

Additionally, the argument that providing audio or Braille materials would be too expensive is also questionable. Payan and Mason aren’t the only two blind students on campus and aren’t the only ones who have ever sought educational opportunities from the district. The district has more than 5,000 students with disabilities and there were 300 blind students registered in the community college system in 2018. Their request for useable materials isn’t unreasonable.

For multiple reasons, the concept of unintentional discrimination doesn’t hold water. Even if the district was unaware that they were discriminatory (which is hard to prove) the correct response would be to work with students to find reasonable accommodation, per the ADA.      

Understanding disparate impact vs. disparate treatment

This lawsuit shines a light on the different types of discrimination that people can experience when engaging with a workplace, community organization, or school. When most people think about discrimination, they focus on disparate treatment. However, it often comes in the form of disparate impact.

Disparate treatment occurs when there is intentional discrimination. For example, if Latino employees are the only ones who need to take an exam to qualify for employment, they are experiencing disparate treatment.

Disparate impact occurs when the discrimination is unintentional but significantly impacts an individual group of people. For example, if all employees were required to take a test but only the Latino employees failed it, there would be a disparate impact.

Many of the cases brought against institutions are based on disparate impact, which is currently being rebranded as unintentional discrimination. Employers, educators, and leaders claim their policies aren’t ableist/racist/sexist/etc. because they don’t intend to discriminate. However, that doesn’t mean the policies aren’t discriminatory.

Students continue to lobby for accessibility on college campuses

This isn’t the first time college campuses have been in the spotlight for ignoring students with disabilities this year. At the University of North Carolina, one student who uses a wheelchair shared her frustrations about being assigned a dorm on the fourth floor. During a fire, the elevators are shut off, something the student learned during a fire drill. This means she has no way to evacuate the building in a real emergency.

It doesn’t matter that the dorm assignment was unintentional. What matters is whether or not the university takes steps to provide a reasonable accommodation (a ground-floor dorm) and changes its policies to prevent issues with other students in the future.

Keep up with the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act is living legislation. Lawmakers continue to expand on what different sections mean and what certain definitions entail. By removing ambiguity, employers and organizational leaders can better provide accommodation for people with disabilities. Lawyers can also better fight for the rights of their clients when they are discriminated against.

Learn more about the ADA through our accessibility resources so you can be an advocate for change in your community.

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