The U.S. Department of Justice just announced a consent agreement with the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) to resolve complaints of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) discrimination.
AICPA and NASBA are private organizations that provide computer-based testing for certification and credentialing of aspiring accountants. Such organizations are covered by Title III of the ADA.
The ADA requires that any private entity offering examinations or courses related to “applications, licensing, certification, or credentialing for secondary or postsecondary education, professional, or trade purposes” provide them in a way that is accessible to people with disabilities through appropriate accommodations.
The following case began with a complaint by a person identified by DOJ as Jane Doe who wanted to take the CPA licensing exam. She is low vision and is legally blind.
According to the DOJ agreement:
“Ms. Doe’s complaint alleged AICPA and NASBA discriminated on the basis of disability in failing to provide necessary testing accommodations for individuals who are blind or have low vision in the provision of the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Exam.
Ms. Doe has low vision and is legally blind. Her low vision substantially limits a major life activity; therefore she is an individual with a disability under the ADA. Ms. Doe met the requirements for applicants for the Exam and sought to take the Exam with modifications and auxiliary aids and services, necessary to accommodate her disability so that the examination results accurately reflect her aptitude and achievement, rather than her disability. Ms. Doe submitted supporting documentation regarding her disability, including a recommendation regarding testing accommodations from a qualified professional.
The (CPA) Exam which consists of four separate sections is designed to assess the knowledge and skills that entry-level CPAs need to practice public accountancy. The testing time limit for each section is limited to four hours unless testing accommodations include extended time.
The Exam requires that individuals search and utilize online databases of reference materials called Authoritative Literature. The Authoritative Literature includes the Internal Revenue Code, the AICPA Professional Standards, the Financial Accounting Standards Board Codification, and the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board Auditing Standards.”
What accommodations does the ADA require for testing?
In its investigation, DOJ examined the types of accommodations needed to make the exams accessible for low vision, legally blind people.
According to DOJ:
“…Necessary testing accommodations (including modifications and auxiliary aids and services) for professional, educational, and computer testing purposes generally consist of:
- A qualified reader, and/or
- Screen reader software, designed for individuals who are blind, that reads aloud the content of a computer screen in its entirety, such as JAWS Screen Reader.
For individuals who have low vision, including Ms. Doe, necessary testing accommodations (including modifications and auxiliary aids and services) for professional, educational, and computer testing purposes generally consist of:
- Software that allows an individual to zoom in on computer screen content to the precise, appropriate magnification level, such as ZoomText Magnifier,and/or
- Software with a screen reader that includes the magnification features above and also allows an individual to select at will specific content on a computer screen to have read aloud, such as ZoomText Magnifier/Reader.”
DOJ determined that Ms. Doe requested ZoomText Magnifier/Reader, which allows both magnification and screen reading of specific content. She also provided medical documentation supporting her accommodation request. Ms. Doe used the ZoomText Magnifier/Reader daily in her work as an accountant. This was the accommodation she also used throughout her undergraduate accountancy study.
When this case first began in August 2017, Zoom Text Magnifier/Reader was not provided as an accommodation for use in any portion of the CPA Exam, DOJ determined. In addition, at that time, there was also no screen reader software provided for certain portions of the Exam. As a result, individuals who are blind or have low vision needed to have a qualified reader for those test portions without screen readers.
According to 2014 DOJ Guidance, “A “qualified” reader means someone who is able to read effectively, accurately, and impartially, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.” Ms. Doe alleged that a qualified reader was not appropriate for her and did not ensure that the Exam results accurately reflected her skills and accountancy knowledge.
Other Exam applicants with low vision similarly requested software screen magnifier/reader accommodations, rather than a qualified reader, with supporting documentation from medical professionals. However, they too did not receive their requested accommodation. Instead, they were given qualified readers, DOJ concluded. The test takers with visual disabilities reported that qualified readers did not make the test accessible to them and could not provide them with the same opportunity as test takers without visual disabilities.
As a result of the investigation, AICPA and NASBA agreed to make the CPA certification exams accessible to people who are low vision or blind. Beginning in November 2017, AICPA began making available ZoomText Magnifier/Reader for the full Exam. Similarly, AICPA has made the entire text of the Authoritative Literature test materials accessible through JAWS Screen Reader.
The agreement further requires AICPA to examine future aids and services for people with vision disabilities as screen reader technology evolves and improves over time.
According to the agreement:
“As screen reading technology, or software technology that more generally ensures accessibility for individuals who are blind or have low vision, evolves and progresses in the future, AICPA agrees to examine new software technologies and consider offering new software technologies as testing accommodations.”
To further resolve the ADA issues raised in the case, AICPA will pay $15,000 in damages to Jane Doe. DOJ will also “identify additional aggrieved persons who: (a) are blind or have low vision; (b) took any section of the Exam between January 1, 2016 and January 1, 2019; and (c) received a software-related auxiliary aid that was not appropriate or a reader that was not qualified or appropriate and did not ensure that the Exam results accurately reflected their aptitude.” For all additional “aggrieved persons” identified by DOJ, AICPA will pay each individual between one and ten thousand dollars in damages.
This case reminds organizations that the ADA has a broad scope. The law applies to professional credentialing exams and the exams’ sponsors. Screen reader technology, website, and computer accessibility are all part of ADA compliance. Be forewarned that if a lack of accessibility and proper accommodations are not available for exams to “accurately reflect a candidate’s aptitude and achievement,” DOJ has a clear message for you – Take care of your ADA business or DOJ will do it for you.