‘Unintentional discrimination’ at the heart of disability lawsuit against California community college district
December 30, 2021
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.