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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Educational Barriers Past and Present: Problems Abound

I went to college well before the ADA was passed and within few months of being paralyzed. I did not have a clue about disability and college life when I left home. I was naive in the extreme. Today I joke that and I received a crash course on disability and in my spare time earned a BA. In retrospect I chose the perfect place to go to college. I attended Hofsta University and unbeknowst to me it had a major commitment to making the entire campus accessible. The express goal was 100% access. I did not choose to attend Hofstra for this reason. I went there for two reasons: the male female ratio was heavily in my favor and it was close to New York City. While all students learn a great deal at college, I learned more than most foremost among those things was the social consequences of disability. My peers with disabilities were a great help. I learned mundane things like how to change a tire on my wheelchair to how to assert my rights as a human being. My real teachers did not have PhDs but rather were my peers with disabilities. Hofstra was in many ways a bubble of security. I had rights, those rights were protected, and as an institution Hofstra had a major commitment to disability rights. This was not the norm at the time. I learned this at Columbia University where I encountered overwhelming opposition to access. I was the only student on campus that used a wheelchair. Access was deemed a "problem", one with no simple solution. Architectural integrity was critically important given the age and beauty of the campus. Ramps were ugly and there was no interest in helping me navigate the campus. Luckily I had a powerful ally on campus--Robert Murphy who by the time I met him was a quadriplegic. Whenever I had a problems with access, and I seemed to have one daily, I gave him a call and the problem would be magically resolved. Without his support, I would not have a PhD. Columbia was without question hostile to inclusion. Disabled students were perceived as a problem. Any accommodation had to be fought for and even when granted was frowned upon.

I do not think much has changed since I left Columbia with a PhD in hand in 1992. American universities, especially the more prestigious schools, consider any so called reasonable accommodations unseemly. There are many reasons for the resistance to access for students with disability. Cost, ignorance, and a total lack of commitment are the three primary reasons institutions of higher education resist making campuses inclusive. Exceptions of course exist. Hofstra maintains its commitment to access as doe others universities too numerous to mention here. But this was not and is not the norm. So what has changed since I went to college? Campuses nationwide present less architectural obstacles. Ramps abound as do elevators. But to me this is all window dressing. What has not changed is exclusionary attitudes and practices. While none will describe wheelchair access or reasonable accommodations for students with a learning disability as being a "problem" that does not mean such students are welcome. Wheelchair accessible bathrooms and dorm rooms for instance are hard to come by. Accommodations for students with a learning disability are even harder to get. Sure most campuses have an office for disability services. But the person that runs the office is rarely disabled. The focus on disability services is often an added on responsibility to an existing job and not a priority. Again, exceptions to this exist but what institutions of higher education have failed to do is equate disability rights with civil rights. Reasonable accommodations are perceived to be a problem or, worse yet, an unfair advantage, especially when it comes to students with a learning disability. More than once a colleague has complained that the school where I teach is "overrun with students that claim they have a learning disability". These scholars tell me "they are sick and tired of being forced to give students extra time on exams and refuse to help them". Animosity is not veiled nor is the belief students seeking any accommodation are really seeking an advantage over their peers.

My thoughts were reinforce after reading about two case at Princeton University last week. The Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Education reported it was investigating two student allegations that Princeton had violated the ADA. Both cases involved student requests for extra time on exams. It is alleged that the university applied excessive scrutiny to such requests and that it used the concept of academic integrity to deny compliance with the ADA. Yikes, this sounds familiar to what I observed at Columbia in the early 1990s. The Daily Princetonian reported about the law suits. I tend not to read comments at the end of such stories as I know all too well they will be negative. But the fact 58 people took time to reply, a large number, I took a glance at what others had to say and was shocked. Negative response were expected but nothing prepared me for how nasty the comment were. Here is a random sampling:

I can't believe the University gave in to Metcalf-Leggette's demands. They have sent a message that if ever you want an unfair advantage on your exams, all you have to do is sue the University.

The evidence that the accommodations were insufficient is that she "ran out of time on every exam"... because, ya know, nobody without disabilities requiring accommodations ever runs out of time on exams...
Kudos to Princeton for "prioritizing a commitment to “academic integrity”. And shame on Princeton for abandoning that commitment in the face of a law suit.

I love how I see this girl out on the street multiple times a week. In her future job, is she going to get 100% extended time? For example, if she becomes a trader, will the market remain open for a few more hours so she can catch up? Or how about a surgeon...will the patients kindly stay alive for twice as long as they would have otherwise so she can fix them up? This is ridiculous. Plenty of other athletes give up the sport they play so they can keep up with the curve at Princeton (not saying athletes are less intelligent--just saying athletes are humans and it's incredibly difficult to keep up with some of the robots here)--maybe this girl should consider that route before basically suing for permission to cheat on exams.

how many people at princeton have taken a test that they could not finish? raise your hands please. wow, pretty much everybody? i guess we all have learning disabilities and we should all be granted 100% time extensions.

“I’ve run out of time every time”. That's how tests are designed -- this is true for everyone!!!!!!!

i mean, i don't really understand how a severe dyslexic who would require twice the alotted time for exams could survive here anyway. How in the hell would they handle the workload? The hundreds of pages of reading per week? I'm not saying its not possible but most students who don't have learning disabilities have a hard enough time getting reading and writing assignments done on time. Does this mean a dyslexic should be given twice as long to complete papers? Two years for a thesis? Extra time on exams has always pissed me off and using ADHD as a crutch is embarrassing. Anybody who wants to get a prescription for study steroids can convince someone that they have attention issues. I'm less opposed to extra time for someone with dyslexia, but still confused about how they would hack it at Princeton beyond actual exams.

The comments above were written by Princeton students. I would estimate 95% of the comments were negative. This is a problem--"reasonable accommodations" are not perceived to be reasonable at all. Students with a disability are not seeking a level playing field but rather an unfair advantage. Th fact students at Princeton don't get the issue is not one of advantage but equality is symbolic of the failure of the ADA to change how American perceive and react to disability. Hence, my belief that not much has changed since I was a graduate student. A sobering thought on a hot and sticky day in New York.


Anonymous said...

This is something I have seen hundreds of times. There was once a post on my school's online community about exam accommodations, and it devolved into the same rude comments and ignorant questions as you posted from Princeton. It is amazing that people still refuse to acknowledge and accept that just because a person needs academic assistance doesn't mean they wont be able to "hack it" in the real world. There was even mention by students at my school of a person who receives accommodations being granted a separate degree, because they didn't "do the work" for a "real" one. Grrr.

FridaWrites said...

Wow, thanks for pointing us to that article and people's comments--what ignorance.

FridaWrites said...

Wait a minute--wasn't Princeton the one that didn't have a disability office or was just starting to look into academic accommodations this fall?

william Peace said...

Strangecripple, If the comments from students appeared circa 1990 that would be expected. However, I assume the comments came from archetypical college age students 18-21 years old. These people grew up with the ADA and supposedly saw schools make reasonable accommodations for the last two decades. Surely they should have learned something about disability rights.
Frida, The comments were depressing indeed. Princeton's disability services office has been severely criticized by students in the past and has a checkered history. My experience with prestigious universities in terms of wheelchair access is overwhelming negative. Old buildings and their architectural integrity are valued over wheelchair access. And God forbid you need to use a bathroom.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Sorry, it wouldn't let me edit my comment, I need to learn to slow down!
I guess I should clairfy: I am from Canada, and we have no ADA... we are at the early stages of the AODA, but it has not yet really come into effect and honestly, from reading it, it is useless.

As for "architectural integrity ", I very much dislike the concept that the history of buildings has more standing than the personal freedoms of someone with disability- there are so many buildings in my city I cannot even ENTER, but they do not need to be retrofitted for accessibility, only new buildings need to be created that way (and...even then...)

Unknown said...

Indeed the backlash against disabled students is severe. But honestly, the justifications (for the lack of accommodations) coming from employees of colleges are more disturbing to me than those of the students. For example, my college has a good number of HP dorm rooms but instead, in response to my accommodations they put me behind several old very heavy fire doors on the 3rd floor, in the room furthest from the elevator (on that floor). The dorm was one of the furtherest from the academic buildings, even though I had requested to be as close to the academic buildings as possible, as did my doctor (he even emphasized this on their medical form). The room couldn’t even fit my scooter in it, and when I brought this up the disability officer admitted that she not only agreed, but when she had been in their during the summer she figured the best thing would be if I just left it in the lobby. When I asked why I couldn’t be put in an accessible dorm room, I was told that non-disabled students were living in them, and it wouldn’t be FAIR to the other students! Even when the logic of their defense dawned on them, they continued to defend it often contradicting themselves or each other.

The worst part in all of it was the disability person told me the building was “all accessible and barrier free” before I arrived! When I contested that perhaps she didn’t understand the language she was using and pointed out the fire doors and the lack of ADA compliant entrance, she asked me why exactly was I so upset about the fire doors, they were just doors! Um, hello, that they can’t be opened easily (or at all) for starters! Her response to that was that it’s an old building. Well, okay, why would she put me there then? Oh, I remember, because it would be unfair to non-disabled students to put me in one of accessible dorm rooms! God forbid my service dog can do more than turn in a tight circle and I be able to fit and use my medical equipment! That would be SO unfair! If there had been a fire in my old dorm I would have died, because my room assignment would have made it impossible for me to get out in time based on the buildings burn rate, plain and simple. Not surprisingly I was the only one on campus losing sleep over all of this. In all honesty, the comments I’ve received from employees of the college about disabilities in general have been the least sensitive and most mindless comments I’ve endured since I’ve been disabled.

As for other students, the backlash is not limited to those with LD. Among the comments my friends have been asked about me have included: “Why does she get to have a dog, she is not even blind, I’ve seen her read!” Or more recently when a fellow student came up to me and said that she had seen me walking before, and that she KNEW I could walk, so she didn’t think it was fair that I got to use a “cart” to get around campus “wherever I felt like it” or have a dog, because she loved her dog too and it wasn’t fair for me to have a dog live with me on campus. I mean, REALLY, come on, cry me a river.

It was definitely a hostile learning and living environment. I have never experienced such disregard for my civil rights until this year.

FridaWrites said...

Court, I am so sorry! This is time consuming, frustrating, and takes away time and energy you could use for other activities. You should not be treated this way, and I hope something changes.

Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D., Instructor said...

yeah, yeah, yeah, heard it all. When I was in grad school in the 90s, my Dean told me that other students "resented" my "special" parking "privileges."

The President of another college told disability activists she would not be moving handicap spaces closer to the buildings. She wanted those for faculty.

More disturbing, last week there was a discussion on New Mobility's Facebook page about the ADA--with people with disabilities coming out AGAINST it, and accusing activists of being whiners.


Unknown said...


Well, there have been a few positive signs for the fall, but it remains to be seen if this is simply some sort of smokescreen about implementing "reasonable" changes. I'll find out in September, but my patience has run out and the next time I have to call my attorney about anything Mount Holyoke they won't be given the courtesy of a demand letter or "conversation". I've made that mistake before.

william Peace said...

Virginia, I too heard complaints when I was in graduate school over supposed privileges others resented. I may complain about the effectiveness of the ADA as it relates to fostering social change but it has placed the law on our side. Without this, millions of ramps and elevators for instance would not exist. People that grew up in the post ADA world don't get this.
Court, I agree the backlash against students with a learning disability is severe. People complain about the cost of physical access to buildings but there is a deeper or angry resentment directed at students with disabilities. What strikes me about your experience is how things have changed since was a student. Today, providing accommodations is part of the larger university system. At some schools it works well at others it does not work at all. When I was an undergraduate access was handled on a case by case basis and people honestly wanted to their best. Based on my general understanding some schools today provide substandard services as a cost saving procedure. This only changes when and if they are subjected to a law suit. I have no doubt this factors into accommodations or the lack of them at some universities.

Becs said...

I have a close friend who works at an Ivy League school's access office. She is often faced with some very bizarre requests. ("But Jane is a vegetarian" made my friend explain that being a vegetarian does not equate to having a disability.)

Luckily, the school she works at is very progressive and still have plenty of room to build and the funds to update.

She navigates waters where one major donor insisted that she "didn't believe in automatic doors." And the one that I think angers her most - a parent has been acting as a child's/student's PCA and class assistant and may have been doing the kid's class work.

Getting to see both worlds does not mean twice as much fun...