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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Higher Education and Disability Based Discrimination

I have a PhD from Columbia University. My parents are very proud of my degree from an Ivy League school. To this day my favorite photograph of my parents sits on my desk. The photograph has them, my son who was an infant, and me in full academic regalia all smiling. I love this photograph because they look so happy and proud. When I look at this photograph I am reminded of a special time in my life. But alongside fond memories are thoughts and experiences that are not so warm and fuzzy. I was among the first disabled students accepted to Columbia University. I was accepted because I was qualified and had the full support of Robert Murphy, a famous anthropologist who happened to be paralyzed. When I arrived on campus I was scared and considered myself woefully unprepared for the rigors of graduate school. This was an accurate assessment. Murphy could not have been more supportive of me and he was brilliant and blunt man. My first semester at Columbia he told me he would get whatever accommodation I needed. He also warned me that I could not fail. If I failed there was no doubt in his mind that this would be used to justify the future exclusion of disabled students at Columbia for many years. This thought terrified and inspired me because I knew it was true. I worked as hard as humanly possible and when access problems arose as they did daily Murphy had the power to solve them. Without Murphy, there is no chance I would have succeeded and he trusted me to carry a heavy burden. I felt overwhelming pressure to excel. In fact, I did not want to just excel I wanted to exceed all expectations and be an academic star.

My experience at Columbia came back to me today when I read an article, "U. Reports Lower Number of Disabled Students than Peer Institutions" published by the Daily Princetonian. According to staff writer Joanne Chong disabled students make up less than 2% of the Princeton University body. To me, this is a depressing statistic when one considers it is even lower than the average 3 to 4% of disabled students at other Ivy League universities. Why is this a depressing statistic? It is proof that the educational and cultural barriers that existed when I was an undergraduate and graduate student remain common place. Worse yet, at Princeton the Office of Disability Services is less than three years old. This does not surprise me in the least in spite of the fact the ADA was passed almost 20 years ago. My experience has been that prestigious universities such as Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc all are needlessly exclusionary. Barriers in terms of wheelchair access and accommodations for people with a host of disabilities are the norm. A culture of perfection exists at schools like Princeton and Columbia and it is assumed students with disabilities have no place on campus. High academic standards, excellence, rigorous work, outstanding performance are not the first things that come to mind when one thinks of disability. What do most people think when they see a man such as myself that uses a wheelchair and is paralyzed? Limits. People without any knowledge of disability think of all the things I cannot do rather than the myriad of ways I have adapted to paralysis. Given this instant negative evaluation, lowered expectations exist and the belief that accommodations are tantamount to charity are all too common. This is a deadly combination that creates overwhelming obstacles for many people with disabilities. Such obstacles exist in most institutions and are more obvious at places like Princeton.

In the article I read one quote struck me as particularly astute. A disabled student noted that everyone at Princeton was nice but there was an "unmovable wall of tradition that is very difficult to change". I encountered this metaphorical wall at Columbia in the early 1990s, Ed Roberts, founder of the independent living movement, encountered this wall at the University of California in the 1970s, and students with disabilities encounter this at secondary and post secondary educational institutions today. Progress is taking place but at a glacial pace. This is infuriating to me and thousands of other people with disabilities that simply want access to an equal education.

What has changed is the law. Laws exist that are designed to empower students with disabilities but attitudinal and architectural barriers remain. Students with disabilities know this and are often afraid or too timid to assert their rights. Thus students with invisible cognitive disabilities to give but one example do not seek extra time for a test because such an accommodation may be perceived as unfair advantage. No one explicitly states this and the discrimination is more subtle and insidious. It takes the form of a professor who bemoans the fact campuses are "over run by students with learning disabilities". This statement was made by a colleague of mine who embraces diversity for everyone but people with disabilities.

It is not easy to ask or demand accommodations be made. This is a time consuming thankless task that is perceived by those unfamiliar with disability as a narcisstic endeavor. If I have learned one thing about academic life it is that universities hate change. Making any exception, i.e. accommodations, to well established traditions are not taken lightly. Given this I was not surprised to read that "At the heart of our philosophy is the belief that the course structure is an essential element of a Princeton education. As part of a comprehensive approach to a liberal arts education, we expect the full engagement of our students as members of an intellectual community, and our degree program assumes a common experience of full-time residential study". This rigid structure works for most students but certainly not all. If such rigidity is strictly enforced the number of students with disabilities at Princeton and other universities will remain statistically insignificant. In fact, I would not be writing these words if a basic and reasonable accommodation was not made for me when I was an undergraduate. You see in 1978 I was a newly minted paraplegic just out of the hospital. Like my peers, I headed off to college but I was far from physically capable of carrying a full schedule of classes. The university I attended, Hofstra, permitted me to live in the dorms even though I took three classes, one class short of the minimum allowed. This basic accommodation made in my freshman year gave me the time needed to strengthen my body and mind after years of serious debilitating illness. Today, Princeton would categorically refuse to make such an accommodation.

It is in the best interest of universities to accommodate and embrace students with disabilities. Diversity is important and incorporating disabled students and faculty members on campus can only enhance academic communities. What is lacking on far too many campuses nationwide is the utter lack of progressive attitudes when it comes to disability. Faculty members who vigorously seek to incorporate students of color, women, gays, and other minority groups that are under represented have conspicuously ignored if not actively discriminated against students with disabilities. Is it really that hard to make sure buildings are accessible, hire interpreters for deaf students, provide students with a learning disability extra time to take an exam, and have a disability services officer on campus that can facilitate all this? Not in my estimation. What institutions of higher education lack is the insight and will to make this happen. I for one think academic tradition and tight budgets, a one two knock out punch regularly used to exclude people with disabilities, are poor excuses. Surely if one is smart enough to teach and work at an institution of higher education a solution to the inclusion of people with disabilities can be found and implemented.


Terri said...

This has been a huge concern for me because my son is a Junior in HS and did quite well on his PSATs. He is being inundated with brochures. He also has a learning disability... His accommodations are not optional any more than my eyeglasses are optional. I am not looking forward to the upcoming angst--it will mostly be his angst, but I don't like that any better than my own (actually, I like it much less than my own!)

FridaWrites said...

I've also heard that some of the U of Illinois campuses are really good for access. I'm curious about others.

One group that I've found particularly helpful is librarians. They will bend over backwards to help you get what you need and seem to be a very aware bunch, in sharp relief to administration, which in some places can be genuinely hostile and not even neutral in tone. This varies from place to place--some universities are much more accessible and interested in diversity than others, so Terri, I'd strongly encourage campus visits. Also have your son call disability services at the university once he's accepted and deciding between schools and ask if there's a student with a similar disability who may be willing to talk to him. I did this--they contacted someone with the same disability so that privacy was not compromised and asked if she'd be interested. That was really helpful.

I once saw a job announcement for one university department that specifically welcomed people with disabilities, and the phrasing just felt warm and inclusive. I.e., not boilerplate language.

Wheelchair Dancer said...

Oh! Yes. And welcome them in to the professoriat in such a way that the tenure track clock doesn't become as insurmountable a barrier as a flight of stairs.

Weirdly, I think access is worse at Ivy League schools...


william Peace said...

Terri, You have good reason to be concerned about your son. College students with learning disabilities encounter some professors who deeply resent their presence and accommodations. This sort of bigotry is something he will have to handle on his own. There is nothing you can do asa a parent. Most offices of disability services do little more than send a note to a professor about required accommodations and the student is left to fend for themselves. This is a larger life lesson that he will need to adjust to. My experience with students that have learning disabilities is largely positive and the accommodations are easily arranged. Generally speaking I have found such students dedicated and have a great work ethic. This always endears them to a professor.

Frida, Some colleges have outstanding reputations in terms of access issues and accommodations. As a student I experienced two extremes. Hofstra was proactive and all accommodations was made in a timely and professional manner. Columbia was a nightmare and explicitly prejudicial. Your comments about librarians is well taken: as a group they are hard working, smart, and generous people. They are also a key to success in graduate school as their research skills and depth of knowledge is second to none.

Dancer, Access in the broadest sense of the term at Ivy league schools is terrible. Architectural and attitudinal barriers are a big problem. Long ago when I applied to graduate school to various Ivy League schools I was stunned by what I encountered. Given the age of the schools, I expected architectural barriers but the it was the attitudes that were a shock. In fact, I went to Columbia rather than Harvard because I was so offended by the attitudes of the people in Cambridge. From what I understand Columbia is much better today but all the Ivy League schools remain elitist.

As for tenure, forget it. Tenure is a myth and tenure track jobs virtually impossible to get. Over half of all professors are part timers such as myself. I consider myself an academic day worker, a disposable employee like the many Hispanic men who wait on street corners for work. Every year I teach out of curiosity I ask my students at some point how many professors they have encountered that use a wheelchair. In the last 20 years not a single student has answered yes to this question. This is a huge problem as people that know nothing about disability are making decisions about what accommodations are necessary.

FridaWrites said...

And if he can meet people with learning disabilities when he's there, they can give him the inside scoop on particular teachers.

WCD, yes! The tenure system is in many ways arbitrary, outdated, and brutal, and there's really nothing comparable in other professions. There's something to be said for efforts to abolish the tenure system as it is. I have friends who are in academics so I feel strongly about this. The process does not allow flexibility for those who have any unusual circumstances or a major life event in those years, including parenting needs; it also does not generally allow less than full-time work, full-time being 60-plus hours per week, not 40, though it could accommodate people who need to work half-time or three-quarters time (more like 40 hours a week). There also need to be more efforts at including people with disabilities in diversity efforts. When I see lists of groups included in diversity efforts for any kind of job, disability is almost never included.

The two-tier system of professors and equally qualified adjuncts is unbelievable, and if K-12 teachers were treated in such a way, you can bet people would be behind them and things would change. One option is to make more teaching-only jobs. While I believe part-time status should be an option, it should not be a requirement or people so drastically underpaid and without benefits, stringing together a bunch of part time jobs because the colleges want to save money.

Greg said...

What a fantastic post, thank you for sharing your experiences!

Beth said...

My son recently experienced all the ugliness of this exclusive attitude at the University of California in San Francisco. He assertively requested accommodations for his learning disabilities, an action that clearly was resented from the start. While the university showed an attempt to meet his needs (with advice of their high powered attorneys, I suspect), in reality they presented an atmosphere with such lack of understanding and inflexibility that my son was not allowed to succeed. He is now struggling with the scarring (he was told he would not do well because of his disability, in spite of earning an undergraduate degree with honors from the same university system), the enormous debt, and the stigma that he fears will keep him from advancing his schooling elsewhere.