A national advocacy group for the blind has called for an investigation of alleged "pervasive and ongoing discrimination" at Pennsylvania State University in the availability of technology-based services for blind students and faculty.
The National Federation of the Blind sent a seven-page complaint letter dated Friday to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, alleging that Penn State is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"Penn State's persistent failure to abide by the law has resulted in gratuitously denying its blind students and faculty equal access to information and thereby to an equal-education opportunity," the complaint states.
It is the first such comprehensive complaint filed by the federation against a publicly funded university, group spokesman Chris Danielson said.
"Penn State is certainly not out of the ordinary," Danielson said, adding that his group hoped the complaint spurs changes at other schools.
Annemarie Mountz, a Penn State spokeswoman, said the university could not comment on the complaint because officials had not yet reviewed its claims.
"Issues of equity and accessibility are immensely important, and we take them very seriously," Mountz said in an e-mail, adding later: "It is Penn State's policy not to discriminate against qualified persons with disabilities in its admissions policies and procedures or its educational programs, services, and activities."
In the complaint, the federation alleges that the university's online library catalog is not fully accessible for blind students.
University websites, including for the Office of Disability Services, are not fully accessible for the blind, the federation claims.
Course-management software, which allows students and professors to interact online and perform course-related functions, also "is almost completely inaccessible to blind users," the complaint says.
Blind faculty members must rely on the assistance of a sighted person to use "smart" podiums that interface with laptop computers, the complaint says.
There is only one ATM on the main campus with audio output that a blind student could use with their identification cards, which can be used as debit cards through a program with PNC Bank, the federation alleges, adding that the PNC website is "nearly inaccessible" for the blind.
Danielson explained that the blind can access websites through software that reads and describes what is on a Web page. But the websites described in the complaint don't work correctly with the software, he said.
"This technology is not inherently inaccessible," he said. "This isn't something the university can't fix. They've just gone about it incorrectly."