Students with vision disabilities found themselves unable to participate in coursework in the Los Angeles Community College district when, as a rule of practice, necessary course materials like textbooks and syllabi were not provided in Braille or audio formats. Students, along with disability rights organizations, subsequently filed suit against one of the largest community college districts in the country in 2017, and in 2019 the case was decided in favor of the plaintiffs.
Unwilling to accept the ruling and make the necessary accommodations, the defendants appealed the case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals where a ruling was again made in favor of the students. Again, unwilling to accept that ruling, the district is now reportedly preparing an appeal that would take the case all the way to the Supreme Court. At the heart of the district’s appeal is an idea called “unintentional discrimination,” which the district would use as their justification for continuing to fail to provide students with disabilities with appropriate course materials. If the case does indeed make it to Supreme Court hearings, it has the potential to have a significant impact on the rights of disabled students as well as future disability litigation.
The facts of the case
The 2017 lawsuit was brought by two blind students enrolled in district colleges, Roy Payan and Portia Mason, with the help of the National Federation of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind of California. Payan and Mason reported that the district failed to provide essential course materials in Braille or audio formats for many classes. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), educational institutions are required to provide equal learning opportunities for students with disabilities, and this would of course include providing course material for vision-impaired students in formats they can actually access.
Yet for many classes that were required in order to move on to a four-year institution and complete their bachelor’s degrees, these course materials were denied. Instead of making the necessary accommodations, the district opted for some creative solutions to student complaints which inexplicably included enrolling some students in film classes instead of degree-required courses like algebra. Other students endured years of slow bureaucratic processes in order to obtain materials, while others had to pay out of pocket to have tutors read material aloud, and others simply dropped out altogether rather than shoulder the financial and time burdens of remaining enrolled in the district.
And while most educational institutions have dedicated offices that aid students with disabilities in obtaining accommodations, the students report that they received very little help from the administration. In fact, administrators told Payan that they could not provide him with a Braille version of his algebra textbook because the district did not have enough blind students to make it cost-effective. But data compiled by the district itself reports an estimated 300 blind students enrolled with more than 5,000 disabled students overall.
The district plans to assert in its appeal to the Supreme Court that the discrimination students with disabilities face in its community colleges is unintentional and that federal disability rights laws including the ADA do not cover unintentional discrimination and thus their continued failings in accommodations are legal. But what exactly is “unintentional discrimination,” and could it possibly serve as a valid defense in this case?
Legally speaking, “unintentional discrimination” happens when policies seem “neutral” but nonetheless have adverse effects on individuals due to their sex, race, or disability. To get an idea of how unintentional discrimination plays out in the modern workplace, think of hairstyle policies that seem “neutral” but would in effect have adverse effects and place undue burdens on people of color.
Regarding unintentional discrimination, the plaintiffs involved in the case would likely argue that almost all discrimination is unintentional, simply the result of oversights on the part of bureaucracies and a lack of intuition to anticipate the needs of diverse populations, and that anti-discrimination laws serve the precise purpose of bringing those oversights to the attention of decisionmakers to allow for accommodations. In this way, the ADA exists solely to nudge institutions away from instances of unintentional discrimination and toward inclusive and accessible policies and practices.
Given that, could it still hold water as a legal justification in this case? Well, yes, and no. The law leaves much room for the legal defense of such policies, though it’s not immediately clear how persuasive the district’s unintentional discrimination defense will be in the highest court in the land.
And if the district’s argument does make it to the Supreme Court, those grey areas that currently exist could be decided once and for all, setting a mostly unmovable precedent for how future discrimination litigation is decided, a precedent that could affect many aspects of the lives of people with disabilities.
A possible settlement
With that being said, it must be noted that representatives from the district are open to resolving the complaints of the students. Board President Gabriel Buelna has reaffirmed the district’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and access for all students even as they appeal to the court. However, a spokesperson for the district has indicated that if a mutually beneficial agreement can be reached between the two parties, then the district would discontinue all efforts in the appeal.