July is braille literacy month on Navigating Blindness and we are excited to feature high school student Kaleigh Brendle who successfully advocated for Braille accommodations on the 2020 College Board exams — globally!
Guest post written by Kaleigh Brendle, high school student.
My name is Kaleigh Brendle. I am 17 years old, and since birth, I’ve possessed a condition called Lebers Congenital Amaurosis, which left me visually impaired.
Four of the courses I was enrolled in this past school year are classified as Advanced Placement, or AP, courses. The course curriculums and final exams are created and administered by a corporation called the College Board. This corporation also presides over the PSAT and SAT exams, among others. Under normal circumstances, I receive all my College Board exams in Braille, and before the onset of the pandemic, the AP exams were going to be no different. If I performed well enough on these high-stakes tests, I may receive college credit for the completion of the course. Thus, these exams are extremely influential. Many blind and deaf-blind AP students had Braille specifically stated in their accommodation plans. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the College Board was forced to shorten and digitize their exams. In doing so, they communicated to us that Braille would not be provided this year. For exams that feature maps, coordinate planes, and other highly visual graphics, a “No-Braille” decision meant that these images would not be embossed. One of my courses, AP Biology, is extremely diagram-heavy, so I grew concerned about the prospect of not possessing the visuals in hard-copy format to tactilely navigate. According to the College Board’s website, 65% of my exam score would be dependent upon my ability to successfully interpret a single graphic. The solution that College Board provided was something called Alternative Text, a description coded into an image or graphic so that a student’s talking software will read the written text when their cursor encounters the image it describes. So when an image of, say, a phospholipid bilayer appears on my screen, my software will start speaking at me and reading the description. It became not so much how well I could interpret the image, but how much of that description I could memorize. If a graph appeared on the screen, it would read out every point on the graph, even spelling out the word “comma”. The given student would be inundated with details. We tried to explain to the College Board that providing us with a large block of text was not a substitute for the actual graph. We need that spatial information as anyone else would; the College Board executives were adding another cognitive burden to an already stressful situation. In addition, with the exams being administered through technological mediums, I sought to clarify what would transpire if a glitch were to occur with my accessible software. For instance, what if VoiceOver does not read the question? What if Jaws shorts out my computer during the exam? When posing this question, the response I received was troubling. I was informed that however long it took me to resolve a tech glitch in my exam, I would have that much less time to complete it. If it took me forty-five minutes to resolve an issue, and the exam was an hour in length, I would have fifteen minutes. The suggestion of both a representative and an executive that I spoke to about this was “use a device with less problems”. Unfortunately, in the world of accessible technology, it is impossible to anticipate what devices will pose complications on that given day.
All of us students were ready and willing to compromise. Three days after I understood the problem, I contacted the CEO of a Braille transcription company, whose staff expressed a heart-warming willingness to help us in any way they could. If College Board could provide the tests, they would create the Braille for them. But they wouldn’t. I contacted New Jersey Department of Education member Bob Haugh, who had orchestrated the New Jersey Dare to Dream conference, which I had spoken at the previous year. He directed me to reach out to the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. I spoke with the Senior Attorney there, who advised me that the best course of action I could take, given the time-sensitivity of the issue, was to file a class complaint with them against the College Board. I reached out to the National Federation of the Blind, who became a party to the complaint I filed. The video I posted to social media explaining the problem went viral; it currently possesses almost 90,000 views (Click here to go to the Twitter Video). Students and TVIs reached out to me, some sharing that they did not even know that this was a problem. Others expressed that they thought they were the only ones enduring this. Some students, like myself, had always had to fight for what they needed, and had grown exhausted from constantly defending themselves against individuals that denied them accommodations, feeling that they were alone in experiencing this. I orchestrated a Zoom call in response, to ensure that they would know that none of us were alone in facing this tribulation. Ideally, I yearned to reach out to every student and every TVI, and ensure that no one would be blindsided when, on exam day, their accommodations were revoked. Four other students signed onto my complaint, and I proceeded to spend the next three weeks on the phone with attorneys, CEOs, and the media 24/7. I do desire to pursue a career in law so it was valuable experience and I’m grateful for it. However, I spent so much time fighting for the exams to be accessible that it began to detract from the amount of time I possessed to study for them. I continued to reassure the students that eventually, College Board would come to the table and attempt to compromise. Their rigid stance was that they had made the exams accessible with Alternative Text, and with electronic Braille. Electronic Braille pertains to Braille text detectable on a Braille display. Such devices display about a half a sentence at a time. So if a student needs to scroll between paragraphs, which is frequently the case in writing-based exams, they cannot do so without it taking a significant amount of time, something which was of the essence on these exams. Additionally, Braille displays cost thousands of dollars, and very few districts are able to provide one for their student or students. In every interview I engaged in and in every meeting I attended, I continued to emphasize my desire to work with the College Board.
Finally, they came to the table. They heard our voices. And they worked with us. After a few more weeks of negotiations, the attorneys and I drafted an agreement, and after making some edits and going back and forth for a bit, all parties signed it and the complaints were withdrawn. Now, it has begun to be enforced. Every child in the world who requires Braille is going to receive it. Words cannot express my gratitude to every student, parent, NFB official, attorney, and executive who permitted blind and deaf-blind students worldwide to be successful on these immensely influential exams. We illustrated clearly and will continue to illustrate that we are not blind to injustice.
Picture Description: Kaleigh is sitting at her dining room table, with a tree in the background. She is wearing glasses and smiling at the camera. Her black-and-white-striped shirt is visible, as is her blonde hair which frames her face.