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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Access to Education: Hits and Misses

I have been thinking a lot about college. My son is working hard on his applications and the dreaded but all important personal essay. My son's experience has prompted me to be retrospective. Why did I choose Hofsta University where I received my BA? What reasons did I have, good and bad, that led me to go to a school on Long Long Island? Well, truth be told, I chose Hofstra because the male female ratio was in my favor, the university was not too far from home, and close to the city in case I got seriously ill. In retrospect, my under graduate experience was everything it should have been. I had a great time, drank way too much, and learned how to navigate the world on my own. I also emerged well prepared for the rigors of graduate school. I can only hope my son learns as much as I did and has an equally positive experience (minus the heavy drinking).

Aside from being retrospective, my son's experience choosing a college has left me very cranky about the American university system in terms of access for students with a disability and the application process. My decision to attend Hofstra was arbitrary. No single factor aside from geography and the number of female students I observed when I visited really swayed me. My son is no different. In his estimation every college he has visited is cool. Each college he visited has a strength and weakness but only two stuck out. What has changed dramatically is parental involvement. College tours are designed with parents and the prospective student in mind but students are clearly of secondary importance. Some colleges have slick presentations but all are designed to appeal to parents. Parents are major players and every college I visited with my son assumed I would go on the tour and attend information sessions. What this means is that prospective students ask no questions and the information provided is largely useless. By useless I mean the things prospective students really want to know is never discussed. This is a direct contrast to what took place when I looked at colleges. My parents drove me to a college, dropped me off at the admissions office, and picked me up at the end of the day. They were not involved at all and did not take a tour much less get out of the car. The most involved they were was the day they bought me a giant paper back book entitled something like A Guide to American Colleges and Universities. It was my job to pick out a few schools and tell them about the one or two I would visit. I am sure there is a happy medium between my experience and the over involvement of parents today. But what sticks out is that students like my son are bombarded with information that is not geared to them. I find this understandable but bothersome. College is a business and I cannot get too mad when they are appealing to the people that will be paying the bills. I just wish students and student questions were the priority. Afterall, it is my son not me that will be attending college.

While on tours of various colleges I also got an opportunity to see what passed for wheelchair access. I vowed to never utter a single question about access for students with a disability in my sons presence. I did however listen to what passed for politically correct language in terms of welcoming students. All tour guides made a point of stating there were gay, lesbian, and transgender groups on campus. Racial minorities were similarly mentioned as ensconced on campus. Various clubs, sports, academic societies were mentioned as well. Travel abroad was always discussed and appeared to be a great way to spend the summer and get credit at the same time. Green technology was the rage--not a single college missed the opportunity to discuss how eco-friendly they were. What I am building up to here is that only once did the issue of disability come up--this was in a power point display that listed campus wide services available to students that preceded a talk by an admissions officer. Of the colleges my son visited, most were reasonably accessible. But not once did I see a prospective or current student with a visible disability. I saw no wheelchair lifts on buses, no brochures about disability services offered, or even a campus map that listed accessible routes. I thought to myself where are my peers? Where are the future business men and women, professors, and white collar professionals with a disability? No percentage or estimate of students with a disability could be found in any catalogue or even on extensive websites for the schools my son is interested in attending. I ended up feeling very alone, as in totally isolated and wanted to know where students and parents with a disability were. I saw every ethnic minority I could think of. I saw people with a diverse range of body types. Yet not once did I see a paralyzed student or parent. No wonder I feel isolated. I am isolated. I am alone. Sure others parents and students with a disability exist but we are the exception, the rare species spotted once in a while and carefully scrutinized and studied.

As a direct result of my son's experience I have spent much time thinking about the all important why. Why did I see no students or parents with a disability? It seems to me that this lack of visibility--near invisibility--is due to social obstacles placed in front of all people with a disability. Sure the last 40 years of law making have been designed to empower people with a disability. But laws do not end bigotry we people with a disability routinely experience. In much the same way, the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s did not put an end to racial bigotry. Likewise, women were not liberated by the push for equal rights or the birth control pill. What made a difference in the every day life of black Americans and women was the social expectation of equality. No such expectation for people with a disability exists in American education--that goes for secondary schools and colleges. Students with a disability, if present at all, are considered special. And special in education is frowned upon. Special means different, special translates into an unfair advantage, special means extra and needless work for teachers and professors, special means spending a lot of money on a few students. I get the message as do students with a disability. We are not wanted, our mere presence a costly burden that must me made because it is the law. This line of thought infuriates me. We are talking about the key to success--a basic education. To me, basic education means a college degree. If my experience this summer with my son is any indication, I will be alone for the foreseeable future. This must change. We must change the mind set that is destroying and has destroyed the lives of countless people with a disability. As the 1960s slogan proclaimed give peace a chance and in this case give people with a disability a chance. A bad pun indeed but one that is apt.


Becs said...

Not on topic, apologies, but above is a link to the NY Times today featuring an article about deaf actors opposing the casting in a play.

Solidarity. Makes you think.

william Peace said...

Bes, In a way the story link from the NYT is on topic. Solidarity is everything. People with a disability must relate and support a person with a very different disability because the cause, equality, is the same. I do this in my own life and reading--I try to keep abreast of what is going on in the disability community at large.

Katja said...

I had to laugh: "I vowed to never utter a single question about access for students with a disability in my sons presence."

I made the same vow, and had the same depressing experience with all three of my children's college choices.

william Peace said...

Katja, This is good and bad news. I am glad to know my experience was the same as yours. Yet I am disturbed people with a disability on campuses remain invisible.
I am also glad to know you made the same vow. However, when the tours and visits were over I made a point of telling my son there were complex reasons so few people with a disability go to college and even fewer work on campus. As I spoke he stifled a yawn.

The Keeper said...

I am attending Cal State Univ San Bernardino right now, and it's a tier three school that I am at after failing to be selected to transfer into one of the Claremont Colleges. I include this because I bet the Claremont system does not have what I have in my classes this quarter: One girl that uses a scooter and does not transfer. She has difficulty writing and is obviously very weak. It's quite difficult for her to speak as well. I also have a deaf girl with two signers in another class, and over the summer I had a blind girl with a seeing eye dog in a class.

OK, the obvious joke is that this state campus is on the bottom rung of the system's ladder, but the people are friendly and the profs are good. I do seriously question some of the mental capacities of many students. And what is not funny at all is that the campus has always been trying to grow its population, so it's a place anyone can go that has graduated high school, for the most part.

Is there a correlation between a low end university and the admittance of disabled students? For the few that are a bit mentally challenged, maybe this is okay. Maybe this is the only place an 800 on your SAT gets you into. But the other students, I can't be sure. The college and profs are very accommodating.

Oh, I forgot my friend who is legally blind (not blond) and in a credential program now. She's bright and attending there because it is one campus that has a program in the English Dept that, once completed, the student is exempt from having to take the CSET test to become a teacher in CA. Is it arbitrary that the program to bypass the difficult CSET is at this campus? Oh, please.. of course not.

Penelope said...

The rants I had/have about being a student with physical impairment at a small very good liberal arts college (I graduated in 2008) are numerous. Interestingly, the school I was at did much better with learning disabilities than with just about anything else. I wasn't the first wheelchair user who'd ever been on campus, but it seems they'd either forgotten or never really known how to do real access. I never did manage to get into their heads how much of a problem the fact that none of the 3 dorms on campus that were accessible were really suitable for me was.

william Peace said...

Penelope, You raise an interesting issue: are people with a disability relegated to second tier or even bottom tier educational institutions? I am not sure if this is the case. However, I have noted that people with a disability often cluster at certain institutions. My experience indicates this penchant is due to the fact people with a disability, for good reason, gravitate to institutions that provide a welcoming environment. Some institutions are simply hostile to the inclusion of people with a disability even 19 years after the ADA was signed. I also know top schools, the Ivy League, in particular, is not welcoming to students with a disability. Problems abound and while better than what I experienced there is an almost total absence of students at such schools.

e said...

Hi Bill,

Another interesting post and discussion. I attended a state university for both undergraduate and graduate school, and the experiences were markedly different.

During my undergraduate years (1982 and before) there was an office on campus to help register any student with a disability for classes, cutting through long lines and other beauracratic hurdles. This was obviously pre-ADA, and physical access was often limited or non-existent. In certain cases, students were also denied the right to take certain majors due to disability. (There was a lawsuit over this at one point).

In 2005, I was accepted into a graduate program at the same institution. In this program, there were four students of various ages with cerebral palsy, 2 students who were deaf, one of whom required an ASL interpreter for class, one student with RSD who used a wheelchair and a couple of others whose disabilities were not visibly obvious.

While there were still problems, the Office of Student Accommodation had as its director someone who would go to any length to help students, and to educate faculty members, many of whom were quite ignorant. I notice that ADA legislation makes physical access somewhat easier, but attitudes linger forever, it seems. You are right regarding solidarity.