FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
BarBri, Inc. agrees to revamp core products and internal practices for improved accessibility
DALLAS, TEXAS – Blind law students enrolled in a bar exam class offered by BarBri, Inc – host of the country’s largest bar prep course -- settled their claims this week alleging the company denied them fair and equal access to critical components of BarBri’s test prep offerings, including its mobile application, website and course materials. Despite multiple attempts by the students to alert management to these concerns, the lawsuit alleged the company’s actions not only prevented blind students from fully enjoying the resources to which they were contractually entitled, but also undermined their ability to effectively prepare for the bar exam.
BarBri agreed as part of a court-enforced consent decree to update its online products using industry-recognized web accessibility guidelines, and to strengthen internal processes, training and staff resources for ensuring compliance with these standards. The plaintiffs are represented by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, and the Texas Civil Rights Project.
“The bar exam is the final step for entry into the profession and bar review courses have become an essential part of preparing to take the exam,” said Jonathan Smith, Executive Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “This settlement clears unreasonable and unlawful barriers standing in the way of blind bar exam takers and ensures that the legal profession is open to all.”
“The settlement marks an important victory for blind students, who despite years of hard work and dedication, often face significant hurdles in achieving their professional and academic dreams,” said Shaylyn Cochran, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and a member of the Civil Rights & Employment practice at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll. “Far too often, our society fails to recognize the significant challenges that those with disabilities face, often fueled, as in this case, by the blatant disregard for the rights guaranteed to them by law. We are proud to have helped secure this measure of justice for our clients and hope it strengthens the ability of BarBri and others across the education sector to better serve all students.”
Dallas-based BarBri Inc offers legal education and certification courses for American and international students and hosts the “BarBri Bar Review”, the largest bar exam preparation class in the country. This offering includes traditional, in-person components such as live lectures and classroom sessions, as well as an array of online and mobile-based resources, including practice questions, test guides, chat rooms and digital platforms for providing real-time feedback and assessments. BarBri touts many of these online tools as integral to maximizing the company’s offerings and ensuring “peak performance” during the exam.
In a 2016 lawsuit filed in Texas federal court, blind law students enrolled in the “Bar Review” course alleged BarBri not only failed to ensure equal and timely access to these digital resources and other course materials, but refused to take corrective action after being notified, inhibiting the students’ ability to effectively prepare for the bar exam. The actions, according to the lawsuit, constituted a violation of federal and state laws barring discrimination against individuals with disabilities and mandating that reasonable accommodations be made to improve accessibility.
As part of the court-enforced consent decree, BarBri agreed to injunctive remedies aimed at improving accessibility for its core online products, as well as strengthening internal processes for serving customers who are blind or with low vision. This includes modifications to the company’s web content, mobile applications, and study tools using the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) – a set of internationally-and industry-recognized standards for ensuring web content is accessible to those with disabilities. Additionally, BarBri has agreed to create new staff and training resources to strengthen compliance with these standards, as well as new internal processes to ensure that requests for accommodations, such as Braille or large-print materials, are handled in a timely and efficient manner.
"As a blind professional, I, like many other professionals with disabilities, must often carry a burden of injustice while pursuing my dreams, and that’s why I’m proud that my co-plaintiffs and I were able to hold a company like BarBri accountable to all students,” said Christopher Stewart, one of the named plaintiffs in the case. “Everyone who seeks to make their world a better place through hard work, diligence, and perseverance should have a fair and equal opportunity to do so. With the consent decree enforceable for the next three years, my co-plaintiffs and I are committed to ensuring BarBri’s course is accessible for all. We encourage blind students to seek our help if they experience any challenges or issues, and I look forward to a great user experience when I prepare for a second state's bar exam next year."
Individuals who are blind or low vision often rely on screen access software, which either vocalizes information on a computer screen or displays the content on a refreshable Braille display. However, websites and mobile applications must have the proper coding to ensure these components are compatible with talking screen readers. Despite accommodation requests made in advance by the plaintiffs and a notice on BarBri’s website guaranteeing compliance with anti-discrimination laws, the 2016 lawsuit detailed wide-ranging technological barriers and functionality issues that undermined the students’ ability to access and utilize BarBri’s resources.
This included the experiences of Claire Stanley, an aspiring disability rights attorney and paying participant in BarBri’s bar exam prep course. In 2015, Ms. Stanley often attended live lectures as part of her enrollment in the class, where instructors frequently referenced online components, such as practice tests, study itineraries and personalized assignments.
According to the complaint, these resources were not fully accessible to blind students. This included issues with BarBri’s online practice exams, which prevented blind students from taking these tests as advised by their instructors, as well as course reading materials that were incompatible with their talking screen access software. The complaint also alleged that many features of BarBri’s mobile platform, such as real-time feedback, comparative rankings, and lecture handouts, were largely inaccessible to blind students. Ultimately, the lawsuit alleged these barriers to access had a significant effect on Ms. Stanley’s progress in the course, rendering her unable to pass the 2015 bar exam and forcing her to hire another tutor through the company at her expense.
The complaint also noted that others faced similar challenges in utilizing the tools they paid for to the fullest extent. Despite both students contacting BarBri staff prior to starting the course, Christopher Stewart and Derek Manners -- graduates of University of Kentucky Law School and Harvard Law School, respectively -- were forced to attend several lectures without receiving accessible materials, placing them at a severe disadvantage compared to their peers. Additionally, Mr. Manners and Mr. Stewart could not properly use the company’s mobile application to view course documents, and software coding issues with BarBri’s website prevented blind students from accessing “pop-up” alerts or tracking their progress after practice exams.
Furthermore, the lawsuit detailed numerous attempts to raise these accessibility concerns with BarBri management, - most notably, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, twice sent a letter to BarBri on Ms. Stanley’s behalf, but the company failed to respond.
According to the lawsuit, BarBri’s actions constituted a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990 to combat discrimination against individuals with disabilities. As a “place of education,” the lawsuit alleged the company wrongfully denied full and equal access to key components of its bar exam prep course, such as its website and mobile app, for blind participants. Furthermore, the lawsuit argued BarBri’s behavior constituted a violation of Texas state law, namely Chapter 121 of the Texas Human Resources Code, which similarly forbids entities from discriminating against individuals with disabilities and mandates that reasonable accommodations be made to enhance accessibility.
About The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs was established in 1968 to provide pro bono legal services to address issues of discrimination and entrenched poverty. Since then, it has successfully handled thousands of civil rights cases on behalf of individuals and groups in the areas of fair housing, equal employment opportunity, public accommodations, immigrant rights, disability rights, public education, and prisoners’ rights. For more information, please visit www.washlaw.org or call 202.719.1000.
About Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC
Founded in 1969, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC is recognized as one of the premier law firms in the country handling major, complex plaintiff-side litigation. With more than 90 attorneys, Cohen Milstein has offices in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Ill., New York, N.Y., Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Philadelphia, Pa., and Raleigh, N.C. For additional information, visit www.cohenmilstein.com or call 202.408.4600.
About Texas Civil Rights Project
The Texas Civil Rights Project uses legal advocacy to empower Texas communities and create policy change. In its twenty-six year history, the Texas Civil Rights Project has brought thousands of strategic lawsuits to protect and expand voting rights, challenge the injustices in our broken criminal justice system, and advance racial and economic justice, including by ensuring that people with disabilities have equal access to programs, facilities, and services.. Today — with dozens of high-caliber attorneys and professionals in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, and the Rio Grande Valley and an extensive network of pro bono counsel and community allies —TCRP is among the most influential civil rights organizations in the Lone Star State.