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Los Angeles Community College District Plans to Appeal Decision in Disability Discrimination Suit

— December 30, 2021

The Los Angeles Community College District is appealing a court decision involving blind students and allegations of discrimination.

The largest community college district in California, Los Angeles Community College District, is working on plans to appeal a case filed on behalf of a blind student and their allegations that they did not have adequate access to “textbooks, handouts, and other classroom materials in a format they can understand.” The school district plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gavel and law books; image by Succo, via
Gavel and law books; image by Succo, via

What happened, though? Well, two blind students ended up hitting the district with a discrimination lawsuit back in 2017. The students were Roy Payan and Portia Mason. They alleged the district failed to “provide important academic materials, such as algebra textbooks and syllabi, in an audio or Braille format.” As a result, the students could not “complete classes required to transfer to a four-year college.”

To make matters worse, “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.” When commenting on the matter, Patricia Barbosa, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said “some students just gave up and dropped out.” She added that 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.” She said:

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

It’s important to note that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits colleges, employers, and others from discriminating against disabled people. For example, “for blind students enrolled in college, that means classroom materials must be in Braille or a digital format that can convert to audio.” To better assist disabled students, many colleges have offices “dedicated to helping disabled students obtain whatever extra help they need.” However, Payan said that help was not so readily available at Los Angeles Community College.

The original case was filed by Payan, Mason, and the National Federation of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind of California in the federal District Court of Central California. In 2019, a judge sided with the plaintiffs, and the district appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That court also ruled in favor of the students. 

In Payan’s case, he attempted to take algebra four or five times without success. He said, “most instructors said they couldn’t convert handouts to audio-friendly files because they didn’t know how.” Then, when he asked for 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.” When one of his math instructors proposed enlarging the type of some handouts, Payan told him, “You can make it the size of a car, I still can’t see it.” Payan has been blind for more than 10 years now.

At the end of the day, Payan ended up hiring a private tutor to read the algebra material out load, which allowed him to pass the class and transfer to California State University, Los Angeles. While there, he was able to earn a bachelor’s degree in public administration and is now a “doctoral student at the University of Southern California studying public policy.” He said:

“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…It’s too late for me, but this is for all the blind students who come after me.”

So why is the Los Angeles Community College District board of trustees appealing the case to the Supreme Court? Well, it is arguing that “federal disability rights laws don’t cover unintentional discrimination.” However, the board is hoping to settle the case before it reaches the Supreme Court by asking for a 60-day extension. This would allow negotiations to continue. 

When asked about the matter, Board President Gabriel Buelna said:

“(We’re directing our attorneys) to engage immediately in negotiations to identify a constructive and mutually beneficial resolution to successfully resolve the matter…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.”


Unintentional discrimination’ at the heart of disability lawsuit against California community college district

Payan v. Los Angeles Community College District, No. 19-56111 (9th Cir. 2021)

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