Berkeley accelerating access to course materials for disabled students

The access agreement that UC Berkeley reached with nonprofit legal group Disability Rights Advocates on Tuesday could set a precedent for universities nationwide.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

UC Berkeley is making its vast library collections and course textbooks more readily available to students with visual and other impairments under an agreement reached Tuesday that could set a precedent for universities nationwide.

The settlement with the nonprofit legal group Disability Rights Advocates was reached after more than a year of negotiations and will provide students with physical, developmental, learning and visual disabilities more timely access to printed materials in alternative formats such as Braille, large print and audio.

The agreement is important because there are few standards required on such accessibility. The Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, doesn’t spell out what accommodations schools must make and includes a clause allowing schools not to make any concessions if costs create an undue burden, said Rebecca Williford, an attorney for the disability rights organization.


“We hope that this is setting a precedent for a model that other universities can follow nationwide,” Williford said. “Access to print material is an emerging issue. We’re hopeful that the technology is going to get better and better and that the agreement with UC Berkeley will help to put students on a more equal playing field.”

The disability rights group represented three Cal students who said they were frequently stymied in obtaining course reading assignments and library research materials in accessible digital formats.

One of the students, Tabitha Mancini, said it could take two to three weeks to get materials on the course syllabus converted to the correct format and that she often had to go through the time-consuming process of scanning library books herself. Once scanned, she can use a computer software program that reads documents and tracks words.

“Any college is competitive, but when you’re talking about a university like U.C. Berkeley, it’s extremely competitive,” said Mancini, a 41-year-old sociology major who has dyslexia. “To compete equally, it’s really important to have access, and my ability to compete was severely lowered.”

Another of the students, Brandon King, said a pilot project this semester to begin scanning library books opened up a new world.

“Imagine what it’s like to never have been to the library and then suddenly have that available,” said King, 31, a cognitive science major who also has dyslexia. “To go and have books scanned and be able to read, I felt like a kid in a candy store.”


The university agreed to a number of improvements, including providing digital versions of textbooks within 10 days and course readers within 17 days and encouraging instructors to identify course materials earlier. In addition, Berkeley will provide scanning machines to allow students to self-scan materials and implement a library print conversion system, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, to enable students to request a specific library book or journal be made available in a different format within about five days.

“We’ve always made accommodations but the real change is that with technology advances, there are more and more materials given to our students to study and learn,” said Paul Hippolitus, director of UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students Program. “Through the settlement, we’ve advanced our capabilities to provide more materials quicker. We retooled our system and came up with new design features to get students with disabilities the same materials as other students.”

More than 1,300 student with disabilities are enrolled at the Berkeley campus, but only about 70 require access to digital text, said Hippolitus.

With the new system, the university has been able to convert 750 textbooks for those students in just one semester, a 115% increase over the last four years, he said.

Even with new technology it is a complex task that can take months for specialized work, such as figuring out how to create Braille text for a blind student studying Mandarin.

“It’s doing astrophysics, microbiology and all of those kinds of subjects with more than words that have to be translated like mathematical formulas, periodic tables, charts and all of the kinds of things that go with this,” Hippolitus said.


The university has not estimated the new system’s costs, said spokeswoman Janet Gilmore.

The Disabled Students Program will hire two additional staffers, in addition to two staffers already hired last summer to produce the alternative materials more rapidly, she said.

All of the new policies and procedures are expected to be fully in place for students by next fall.