Kai Wang was in first grade when the pandemic moved his classroom at Cragmont Elementary behind the screen of his laptop. And for all the challenges of virtual learning, Kai, who is blind, faced even more of them.
Virtual learning hastened the arrival of a new era in educational technology. The problem, though, was that many of these tools were not built with students with disabilities in mind.
Math, for instance, was no longer a paper and a pencil affair — instead, numbers flashed on the screen and students solved equations using educational technology software. But when Kai moved his cursor around the screen during his math class, the screen reader repeated the same word. “Unpronounceable,” it said over and over again. “Unpronounceable.”
The same situation repeated itself nearly every time Kai logged on for class, a situation that was documented in the SF Chronicle. Once, a teacher told him he was excused for the rest of the hour because he wouldn’t be able to see it.
“That was unbearable for us. He’s a sponge, wanting to learn every single thing. And he was just simply excluded from learning,” said Mina Sun, Kai’s mom.
As the pandemic wore on, Sun quit her job as a scientist at UC Berkeley to focus full-time on advocacy for her son and other blind students. After numerous attempts to work with Berkeley Unified, Sun said, she secured the help of the National Federation of the Blind and an attorney, Timothy Elder, who is blind himself.
After she sent a demand letter on Dec. 2, 2020, arguing that the district was not meeting its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the district agreed to a process called “structured negotiations” that serves a more collaborative alternative to a lawsuit.
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 BUSD uses and creates a system for responding to accessibility complaints.
“Providing quality, engaging, and accessible learning in service to our students is a district priority. As a system, we will continue to reflect on our work and make continual improvements to make sure this remains true,” a BUSD spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement, saying that the district could not comment further on the settlement due to student privacy requirements.
Moving forward, any new tech purchases will have to go through staff at multiple departments with the hope of ensuring accessibility for students with disabilities. The structured negotiations didn’t result in any damages (the district paid out just $50,000 in legal fees); instead, Sun wanted systemic policy changes.
Sun and her team hope that the settlement will be the sort of experiment that, if it’s effective, could become a blueprint for other school districts.
Removing logistical barriers to learning for students with disabilities
When Kai was in preschool, he was diagnosed with retinal degeneration. As he got older, his vision would deteriorate and he would become legally blind.
Sun, who did not know anyone who was blind at the time, was terrified. It took years for her to develop the stance she now takes: Kai is brilliant, he can achieve anything he wants, and her job is to get rid of the logistical barriers that stand in his way.
“I have talked to lots of people who think, ‘You’re asking too much. You can’t expect everything to be accessible,’” Sun said.
But from her perspective, she is asking for the bare minimum: for Kai, now 9 years old, to simply have the same educational access that his younger brother, Skyler, who is not visually impaired, will get.
One time, Kai asked his mom whether she could call “just one” of the 10 or so technology companies whose tools he was supposed to be using in class everyday. Could they make their tool just “a little bit” accessible for him, he asked?
“It was heartbreaking for me to hear that,” Sun said. “It’s just the casual message our society is sending — we’re not supposed to ask for all, we can ask for less.”
While the technology schools are using may be new, the obligations they have to educate students with disabilities are not.
“The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has existed in one form or another since 1975,” said Chris Danielson, the public relations director at 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, then it should also be thinking about how that technology is potentially going to affect students with disabilities.”
Though IDEA has existed for decades, compliance can be spotty, and it’s at least part of the explanation for why just 15% of blind people in the U.S. have a college degree.
Classroom use of tech has increased over the last decade or so, dictating how students turn in homework and complete projects.
“But the problem just hit an exponential curve when distance learning happened,” said Timothy Elder, founder of the TRE Legal Practice, a law firm that focuses on students with disabilities.
As a result, blind students like Kai — as well as students with disabilities like deafness — face increasing accessibility challenges.
“Some of the same technology that the BUSD is using is being used elsewhere, which means that blind kids who encounter it are experiencing the same barriers,” Danielson said.
A cause to celebrate in working toward greater accessibility
The settlement, which lays out an Instructional Software Review and Approval Process in Berkeley Unified, is intended to ensure that technology will be accessible for all students. It could apply to everything from students turning in assignments on SeeSaw to playing study games like Kahoot.
When BUSD wants to purchase a new technology, it will have to go through a review by staff in special education, technology services and educational services. Only if the technology is accessible, aligns with the curriculum and complies with student privacy rules will it be approved for purchase under the new process.
Though it sounds bureaucratic, this could mean the difference between kids getting to participate in class and having to sit out altogether.
And while Sun wishes it didn’t have to come to a legal letter or “fall on the shoulders of parents,” her attorney praised BUSD for “having the political will to … be a leader in the field.”
“Software should be accessible across the board, and we shouldn’t be expecting the school districts to have to fight for it, district by district,” Elder said.
As Sun and others work toward a more accessible world, they have cause to celebrate, and they’re hopeful that this means Kai’s life will be just a little bit easier in the future.
“He’s an exceptionally bright and talented individual and I’m sure he’s going to do amazing things in life,” Elder said. “I just want to make sure he gets every opportunity to do that.”
Correction: A previous version of this story — and its headline — mistakenly stated that Mina Sun sued BUSD on behalf of her son, Kai. Sun sent a letter arguing that the district was not meeting its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The letter led to structured negotiations, which eventually yielded a settlement. No lawsuit was filed.