Kai Wang was in first grade when the pandemic moved his class to Cragmont Elementary behind his laptop screen. And despite all the challenges of virtual learning, Kai, who is blind, has overcome even more.
Virtual learning has accelerated the arrival of a new era in educational technology. The problem, however, was that many of these tools were not designed for students with disabilities.
Mathematics, for example, was no longer a paper-and-pencil affair – instead, numbers were displayed on the screen and students solved equations using educational technology software. But when Kai moved his cursor around the screen during his math lesson, the screen reader repeated the same word. “Unpronounceable,” he repeated over and over. “Unpronounceable.”
The same situation repeated itself almost every time Kai logged in to class, a situation documented in the SF Chronicle. Once a teacher told him that he was excused for the rest of the hour because he couldn’t see him.
“It was unbearable for us. He is a sponge who wants to learn everything. And he was just excluded from learning,” said Mina Sun, Kai’s mother.
As the pandemic progressed, Sun quit his job as a scientist at UC Berkeley to focus full-time on advocating for his son and other blind students. After many attempts to work with Berkeley Unified, Sun said, she got help from the National Federation of the Blind and an attorney, Timothy Elder, who is himself blind.
After sending a demand letter on December 2, 2020, arguing that the District was not fulfilling its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the District agreed to a process called “Structured Negotiations” which serves a more collaborative alternative to a trial.
The result was a June 9 settlement — the first of its kind, according to Sun and the National Federation of the Blind — that establishes a process for reviewing the technology used by BUSD and creates a system to respond to accessibility complaints.
“Providing quality, engaging and accessible learning to serve our students is a district priority. As a system, we will continue to reflect on our work and make continuous improvements to ensure this remains true,” a BUSD spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement, saying the district could not. not comment further on the regulations due to student confidentiality requirements.
Going forward, any new technology purchases will need to go through staff across multiple departments in hopes of ensuring accessibility for students with disabilities. Structured negotiations resulted in no damages (district only paid $50,000 in legal fees); instead, Sun wanted systemic policy changes.
Sun and his team hope the settlement will be the kind of experiment that, if effective, could become a model for other school districts.
Removing logistical barriers to learning for students with disabilities
When Kai was in kindergarten, he was diagnosed with retinal degeneration. As he grew older, his vision would deteriorate and he would become legally blind.
Sun, who didn’t know anyone who was blind at the time, was terrified. It took her years to develop the position she takes now: Kai is brilliant, he can achieve anything he wants, and his job is to get rid of the logistical barriers that stand in his way.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of people who think, ‘You’re asking too much. You can’t expect everything to be accessible,'” Sun said.
But from her perspective, she’s asking for the bare minimum: that Kai, now 9, simply have the same access to education that his younger brother, Skyler, who isn’t visually impaired, will get.
Kai once asked his mom if she could name “just one” of the roughly 10 tech companies whose tools he was supposed to use in the classroom every day. Could they make their tool just “a little” accessible to him, he asked?
“It was heartbreaking for me to hear that,” Sun said. “It’s just the informal message that our society sends – we’re not supposed to ask for everything, we can ask for less.”
Although the technology schools may be using are new, the obligations they have to educate students with disabilities are not.
“The Persons with Disabilities Education Act has been around in one form or another since 1975,” said Chris Danielson, public relations director for the National Federation of the Blind, who worked with Sun. “Yes, technology has changed. But if the school can adapt to the existence of new technology, it should also think about how this technology will potentially affect students with disabilities.
Although IDEA has been around for decades, compliance can be spotty, and that’s at least part of the explanation why only 15% of blind people in the United States have a college degree.
The use of technology in the classroom has increased over the past decade, dictating how students turn in their assignments and complete their projects.
“But the problem just hit an exponential curve when distance learning happened,” said Timothy Elder, founder of TRE Legal Practice, a law firm that focuses on students with disabilities.
As a result, students who are blind like Kai—as well as students with disabilities like deafness—have faced increasing accessibility issues.
“Some of the same technology that BUSD uses is used elsewhere, which means blind children who encounter it face the same barriers,” Danielson said.
A cause to celebrate by working towards greater accessibility
The policy, which sets out a review and approval process for educational software in Berkeley Unified, is intended to ensure that the technology will be accessible to all students.. This could apply to everything from students turning in assignments on SeeSaw to study games like Kahoot.
When BUSD wants to buy new technology, it will have to go through a review by Special Education, Technology Services, and Educational Services staff. Only if the technology is accessible, compliant with the curriculum, and compliant with student privacy rules will it be approved for purchase under the new process.
Although it sounds bureaucratic, it could make the difference between kids participating in class and having to miss out altogether.
And while Sun wishes he didn’t have to come to a legal letter or “fall on the shoulders of the parents,” his attorney praised BUSD for “having the political will to… be a leader in the domain”.
“Software should be available to everyone, and we shouldn’t expect school districts to have to fight for it, district by district,” Elder said.
As Sun and others work towards a more accessible world, they have reason to celebrate, and they hope that means Kai’s life will be a little easier in the future.
“He’s an exceptionally bright and talented person and I’m sure he’s going to do amazing things in life,” Elder said. “I just want to make sure he has every chance of doing it.”
Correction: A previous version of this story – and its title – erroneously stated that Mina Sun sued BUSD on behalf of his son, Kai. sun sent a letter arguing that the district was not fulfilling its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The letter led to structured negotiations, which ultimately resulted in a settlement. No lawsuit has been filed.