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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.