Marissa: I want for you to imagine that you're taking an online test where you have to answer a few questions about a graph, but instead of being able to look at it, or in the case of braille users, feel a tactile version of one, you instead have to rely on a five-minute audio description. This means that every time you god forbid forgot a single detail or number in that graph, you would have to waste your precious test time listening to that description all over again. Now whether you're blind or sighted, this would be a stressful situation for anyone. And it most certainly was for my guest Kayleigh Brendle, a high school senior in New Jersey. She found out in March that she would not receive hard braille copies of her AP exams and that she would instead have to rely on audio descriptions or refreshable braille, which only shows about half a sentence at a time. In this episode of Legally Blonde & Blind, Kaleigh and I discussed the legal action she took as well as how you can advocate for yourself in your daily life. My name is Marissa Nissley and welcome to the second episode of Legally Blonde & Blind.
Marissa: Welcome to the second episode of Legally Blonde & Blind. And I am joined here with another legally blonde and blind person. Kaleigh Brendle. Thank you so much for joining us.
Kaleigh: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really, really excited to do this.
Marissa: I am too. So before we get into it, um, I just wanted to ask you, how has your school year been so far your classes online in person? How's it been going for you?
Kaleigh: So I'm completely virtual this year and it's definitely been a roller coaster because I'm taking four AP classes again. I took four in junior year and now another four in senior year. And that mixed with college applications and scholarship opportunities and it's a very interesting time, but I sort of like juggling all of the work. I have the most incredible group of teachers this year, and it's really like a breath of fresh air because I've had a lot of bad experiences in my life with teachers that both don't accommodate or don't want to accommodate. And I've never had a group that's just so willing to help me in any way they can. And just so kind-hearted. And when it's a time like this that's really, powerful and beautiful and moving.
Marissa: No, I'm really glad to hear that teachers have been helping you during this time. And has there been anything you're doing to keep yourself sane during quarantine during your free time?
Kaleigh: Yeah, so a couple of things have been keeping me sane. So I actually direct an international online choir for the blind called Sing for Serenity Choir. And that's been keeping me sane. There is a lot of work that goes into that because we have about 90 members now, and we're about eight different countries. So coordinating time zones can be a bit messy and we do virtual recording projects. You can find them on YouTube. And, our other social media accounts have links to YouTube. And so that definitely does take a lot of work because none of us read music. We have to sort of transcribe the parts by ear and then instruct them accordingly. But the way it sounds when that coral sound is produced when all the recordings come in, it's like nothing you'll ever experience. Like you'd think that by, you know, the fifth or sixth song, like I'm used to it. But like, I still get shown up every time because it's like a proud mom moment. We have like, we have 12-year-olds and then in the adult division we have like 25-year-olds and it's like variance and you know, some kids have a language barrier and they struggle with the English lyrics. Like we have a German girl that really struggled with the English lyrics and to hear her sing it. And like she nailed the last piece we did. It was an amazing, proud moment for both of us because she was even like the day she recorded, she was still so nervous. And then for her to blow it away like that.
Marissa: So that's great. And then, and if anyone wants to get involved, what can they do?
Kaleigh: So we have an Instagram that you can DM, a Facebook, you can message like a Facebook page. You can message, you can DM our Twitter and you can also comment on our YouTube. We also have an email address, so it's Sing for Serenity choir, and serenity is spelled SERENITY. If you go to my Facebook, I also list it in my, about section that I'm the founder and director of the choir. So if you click on the, for my voice over users, if you click on like the part where it says founder and director of Sing for Serenity choir, it'll take you directly to the Facebook page and then you can find our other socials from there, but YouTube would probably be the easiest way. So yeah, if you, you can subscribe to our channel and you can comment on our videos and we check those. And you know, you can comment suggestions too.
Marissa: That's great. So let's get into your experience with the college board. Now, most students don't have a good experience, but you, in particular, had a negative one.
Kaleigh: Oh my gosh.
Marissa: So your junior year of high school, you said you were going, you were going to take four AP exams, right?
Marissa: And so in an ideal situation, like what accommodations would you have during an exam?
Kaleigh: In an ideal situation, I would've received a hard copy in Braille. My test would've been embossed for me and for visual courses, for example, AP biology or AP United States history, the graphics or the diagrams that would've been included in the print copy, would've been actually produced so that I could, you know, examine them and explore them to derive the necessary information from them. And I also would've had a, you know, extended time. I would've had a one-on-one reader with me and, you know, breaks, as needed, were built in through my extended time accommodation. And this year, all of those were revoked at the beginning of the pandemic.
Marissa: So, the pandemic happens while everyone's freaking out about getting their toilet paper and Clorox like you're still studying for your exams. And then what do you hear from the college board?
Kaleigh: So it was very interesting how they approached getting out the information because you had to really look to find what they'd done. They didn't overtly say we're taking away braille. They're very careful with their diction. They just said we adjusted to a technological format. So you had to really read between the lines because I didn't fully grasp like I wasn't able to find the information for weeks and then I found it and I took a demo of a past exam and my hardware crashed.
So, I called the support line. I said, what happens if this occurs during the test? Because of my technology, there are more variables. I was speaking with Dr. Natalie Shaheen and she said, you know, there are so many more variables that allow for technological errors when you have accessible software in addition to technology. So we had all those variables and I said to the support person, like what happens and they're just like, “well use a device with less problems.” And I'm like, but you can't like, you can't say that because that wouldn't be fair to ask a sighted student, and that's not fair to ask me because you can't anticipate like, “oh my computer's gonna glitch next Tuesday.”
Marissa: Like, so they never emailed you about these changes? You had to find them on your own and then take a practice test where you realized it didn't work. And then they told you, oh, just find something that works. Right?
Kaleigh: Yeah. And then the big kicker. Later in the conversation that I had with a support person and she had said, or I had said, “okay, well, if it does glitch, you know, can I at least get time back?” Right. And she's like, no. So it basically boiled down to if I had a 45-minute exam and 30 minutes of it were eaten up by glitches. I would've had 15 minutes to take a 45-minute test.
Marissa: So you didn't have any extended time?
Kaleigh: No, not online.
Marissa: That's crazy. So how did this feel learning that you weren't going to receive the accommodations you normally would?
Kaleigh: It was extremely unsettling. They had, I think at one point they had initially made plans to, they were gonna try to adjust the timer in some way for like a hundred percent, but that would not allow for breaks at all. So they were going to at least try to fulfill that much of it, but the breaks as needed were so vital to me because college board diagrams aren't perfect. So I needed to be able to, like, I do have some usable vision, so I needed to be able to use that and, you know, eye strain and finger fatigue are real for blind people. And so I needed to build in for those, but they wouldn't do that at all. Like there was no function to stop the timer and, then, you know, the braille was just nonexistent. What really scared me was the idea of the tactile graphics and not having those and having to rely on this robust passage of all text that I had to keep playing over and over and over and over and commit it to memory.
Marissa: And no, that, that was the most shocking part to me. I couldn't imagine having to listen to a description of a graph and God forbid like you forgot one number.
Kaleigh: I know. Yeah. I literally had that on the actual exam. So like, I actually ultimately, you know, not to spoil this, but did get, I did end up getting the accommodations and for my biology exam, there was a giant X, Y coordinate plane. And I'm thinking to myself, I'm like, how would that have happened? If I didn't have the braille in front of me and I felt so bad because one of my friends took the AP calculus AB exam. And he had a slope field that he was working with and it was a mess. Like the alt-text was a mess and like I had a conversation with him afterward and just the way he described it was horrific.
Marissa: Sure. AP exams are stressful enough as is like no one needs all of these technical issues on top of it.
Marissa: So what steps did you take after you found out you weren't going to get the accommodations you needed?
Kaleigh: So I immediately wanted to take advantage of the connections that I made over the years. And I know someone who works at the New Jersey Department of Education and he really believed in me and I really care about him. So I called him up and I said, “Listen, I'm really struggling here. I need to know what to do.” And he's like, “you should call the office for civil rights”. I'm like, “wait a minute. Are you talking about the United States Department of Education?” And he's like, “yes.” So he put me in contact with this high-up attorney over there.
And I ended up speaking to the senior attorney and she said like, because at this point, the exams were a week away, I think a week. And she's like, given the time constraints, you should file a class complaint and we can apply for rapid resolution. And so a class complaint for those of you who don't know that entails one complainant assembling the documentation and filing, but other complainants can sign on. So in my case, I was the principal complainant. And then I was put in contact with Valerie Yingling who's affiliated with the National Federation of the Blind. She's their legal program coordinator. So I was put in contact with her. And the National Federation wanted to become a party to my complaint to help us. And I reached out because I'm very connected to the blind community. And I reached out to everybody. I knew who I thought might be taking AP exams and nobody knew about this and the people that did know didn't know what to do about it. Ultimately four other students, four boys, um, including the boy I spoke about who took that calculus exam, they signed on to the complaint that I filed.
And from there, we, you know, it exploded from there. And I also put out a video on social media and explained the issue because like people needed to know about this and it had almost 90,000 views.
Marissa: That's insane. And I'm sure when you began this process, you didn't think that it would become as viral as it did.
Kaleigh: Oh gosh, no.
Marissa: Several major news networks reported about your story.
Kaleigh: Yeah. To be contacted by Fox News or the New York Post, like it's, it's so humbling that they would try to help us. You know, blind abilities. I reached out to Jeff Thompson and he helped us. And there were so many, you know, there was a transcription company that was willing to help us in three days. Three days after I put that video out, we had a company that was ready and willing to produce the braille and mobilize to produce that braille. In three days, three days, they were so ready. Like they were, they were gonna do anything they could.
Marissa: That's great that so many people reached out to you. And I was wondering what it was like for you to work with the National Federation of the Blind and other members of the blind community?
Kaleigh: It was so empowering and so incredible. And I never came into this. Like it was never, and I think that's something that, some people might misconstrue was like, it was never a publicity thing. It was never an opportunity. It was never a compensation thing. I just wanted to take the test. Like I had other stuff I needed to do. I had finals that I needed to study for, I just needed to take the test.
Marissa: No, of course, it was interesting, president Riccobono said in his presidential report. He had a quote where he said, many students fight to get out of testing. These students fought to get into testing and I thought that was a very good point.
Kaleigh: I thought that was so appropriate. And so encapsulating what we were trying to do. But to work with them, and I worked with this one attorney named Sharon Trevor, so kind, so sweet, just so genuinely willing to help. And they were all such good people. And throughout that entire experience, I would always be the liaison between the students and the attorneys. And I always wanted to keep the students informed. I never wanted the students to think that they were in the dark or that there was something I knew that they didn't know.
Marissa: That's great that you kept the students involved as well.
Kaleigh: Oh yeah. Thank you. I really appreciate that. But yeah, so I, you know, if I had any big updates, I would definitely like, I would always call the students right away, but that's how I started it. I orchestrated a big student zoom call with everyone to get everyone I could find who was facing this.
Marissa: How many people did you end up finding?
Kaleigh: So there were many more that wanted to be a part of it, but wouldn't step up or couldn't step up. So I found like, you know, dozens, but only about a dozen were on that zoom call because okay, many were just so tired of having to fight for everything and amid the pandemic. Like there was a deaf-blind boy that was completely shut out because if you can think of that, he didn't have a Braille display. And the only plausible solution that they had been given was all text and he couldn't hear it. So he was completely shut out, but he was so done fighting and I completely understood that. Many of them were, many of them just wanted to, you know, deal with it and just try it anyway.
Marissa: Of course. That kind of goes into what I was gonna ask you next. Were you ever, did you ever feel discouraged or like, especially stressed at any point of this process and if so, how did you feel?
Kaleigh: Yeah, I definitely felt stressed at a lot of points because I felt like it was on, you know, my shoulders, and I was the one, you know when we filed at the DOJ. The national level, like that, was a lot of work on my end, and all those interviews and all of those conversations with attorneys and with the NFB and with the students, I was always running them or one of the people responsible for running them. And most of my teachers were incredibly understanding. One of them wasn't and one of them kept pounding me for not submitting my work. Or not submitting it on time, and keep in mind, I did have an extension built into my accommodations for school, but she was relentless and that definitely didn't help, you know, and I was just, you know, COVID 19 was a stressful time to begin with. And so of course I had that on top of school, but I made a lot of new or developed a lot of new connections through that experience. And some people, you know, those four boys, I really got to know them and they were people that, one of them I didn't know at all coming in and now were extraordinarily close and that's amazing. And there's so many people you think this whole thing for that is like, I got connections like that. And there's one boy, you know, that I've known for years. but, you know, he was affiliated with the National Braille Challenge like I was, and we just never got to talk. And now he and I are really close as well. You know, we're really great friends. And so I was able to talk to people that were going through this too. And, you know, I used SIng for Serenity. It was definitely my escape during that whole time. Because I didn't have to think about, you know, legalities and documents. I just had to think about making memories and making music.
Marissa: That's great. And I, you talked a little bit about this in the beginning, but how did this process turn out?
Kaleigh: So, it was definitely a struggle because, you know, you'd mentioned, you know, being discouraged. My first college board call, they were completely unwilling to do anything except for you to come to the table was even a struggle. And they were accusing us of, you know, they were worried that we were gonna cheat. That was their principal grievance and that was discouraging, but then, you know, a lawsuit came out. Another lawsuit came out against them and it brought in the ADA and other factors kept piling up and our community kept growing. And eventually that one phone call when they just said, “okay, we're gonna do this.” It was the most incredible experience. and the most incredible feeling. And the first people I called were my students and my peers. And I was like, “we did it. We did it.”
Marissa: I'm sure that must have been so relieving.
Kaleigh: It was incredible. We were all collectively feeling just pure joy and it wasn't just taking a test. It wasn't like, you know, “I'm so happy to take a test” But we were. And because we'd secured something for anybody across the world that needed it.
Marissa: No, that's great. You helped so many people, not just the people that signed on with you, but there are so many blind students and students with other disabilities that are just being totally shut out of this process. And so I really commend you for going above and beyond and putting so much time and effort into organizing this, because you had this on top of your schoolwork, your tests, like just studying for four AP exams on their own is stressful. So kudos to you.
Kaleigh: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.
Marissa: So finally I wanted to segue into how people can apply some of the lessons that you learned into their daily lives. So not everyone will file a lawsuit in their life, but most people who are blind or visually impaired have to explain what they need to a teacher, an employer, a friend, et cetera. So what tips do you have for someone in that position?
Kaleigh: I think it's important to remember that one voice is still capable of causing a movement to commence because that was something that I know many of the students struggled with that, you know, ultimately didn't decide to partake in. It's like, well, I'm one person. What can I do? And I felt like that too with points, but my one voice turned into 350,000 and it was an experience like no other. And if I hadn't done anything, so many students, including myself, but more importantly, so many other students would've been shut out from this opportunity. So I just needed to be confident that, you know, and keep the faith that this would change and that the right decisions would be made, but, and I had to step up.
Marissa; But yes, I think what your, I think what your story also shows is that there's always going to be people that support you and, you know, take advantage of those networking opportunities.
Kaleigh: Like I, the reason that I was able to do all of this is because I decided to speak or I was actually invited to speak at the Dare to Dream conference in, what was it? 2019, I think. And the organizer of that, his name was Bob Ha and he was that contact that started it all. And if I had never met him, I would've never been able to contact OCR. And that just really shows, you know, take advantage of that networking, you know, develop those connections because they can lead to so much.
Marissa: Oh, I know I mentioned this briefly in my first episode, but taking advantage of any conferences for blind or visually impaired people is really key because you can make these types of connections. And it is very reassuring to know that there are people there who are going to support you if these things ever happen. Because I mean, we know that this isn't the last time that there's going to be discrimination. So it's great to know that there's that support system there. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Kaleigh. I really appreciate it. Is there anything else you wanna add before you go?
Kaleigh: I just wanna reiterate my gratitude to you and to your listeners for allowing me to be a part of this platform. Go follow all of Marissa’s stuff. This is so cool.
Marissa: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that you are such an inspiration and I'm sure all of my listeners would think the same thing.
Kaleigh: Thank you so much.
Marissa: Well, I don't know about you, but I could tell within the first 30 seconds of this interview, what an inspiring, friendly and well-spoken person Kaleigh is. I am so glad that she was willing to be the first guest on Legally Blonde & Blind, especially because she also fits the description of legally blonde and blind though her hair is a bit darker than mine.
If you enjoyed listening to this episode of Legally Blonde & Blind, make sure to subscribe on Spotify, apple podcast, or wherever you get your podcast. You also can follow Legally Blonde & Blind on Facebook and at Instagram @legallybb_ for updates. Thank you. And I hope to see you all soon!