I wrote yesterday about Jennifer Burbella, a student who is suing Misericordia University in Pennsylvania because she doesn’t believe she is receiving the appropriate accommodations for her mental health illness.
Incidentally we tackled May as Mental Health Awareness Month today. I am growing dismayed by the misinformation permeating this trending story, but I think it also serves as an important impetus toward discussion of the stigmatization of disability in our society and that accommodations are not a leg up, a result of trophy society or wrong. I want to take the rhetoric in this case and hopefully shine some light about the myths circulating about accommodations. I took these comments directly from Facebook, so please forgive the spelling.
“If the school was not aware of her disability and she did not request any accommodations in advance, she was not entitled to anything under the ADA.” Again, this story is still in its infancy and we don’t know what this student requested or was accommodated for, but this brings me to this point: accommodations are more objective than subjective. This is especially important to note in this case. Accommodations are not at all subjective, there are very clear perimeters of who needs to be accommodated and under what disease. The fact that Ms. Burbella was being accommodated indicates that she had an appropriate diagnosis that necessitates accommodation under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). Again, this act has been around since 1990, which is older than when I went to college. The ADA is essential for disabled peoples to be able to work and attend school with just “reasonable” accommodations. This doesn’t mean an unfair advantage, this is meant to level the playing field. Don’t we want everyone to have a chance to succeed and fail from an even playing field?
One of my favorite quotes is that “He was born on third base, and he thinks he hit a triple”. Using this analogy, disabled students were born in the parking lot. They can succeed and hopefully will, but it requires help: navigation support and a society willing to say that the outcomes of these people matter. If you look at the Labor statistics, we will find that we do have a lot of people with disabilities in our workforce but we could do a better job.
Labor Force Participation
People with disabilities: 19.3%
People without disabilities: 68.4%
People with disabilities: 10.0%
People without disabilities: 4.9%
“If taking a test is too much stress for her, I sure wouldn’t want her to be my nurse in a crisis situation!” I see this variation a lot, and I agree that she should really intently look at which major would play to her strengths, given her disability, and what will cause more stress. This is all part of services the university should be offering. I have sat in several meetings when a terrific counselor has counseled a student away from a major based on her knowledge of him. Using enthusiastic and positive tones and rhetoric, she told him how great he was but he wouldn’t be as successful as he could in the major he had chosen, so he changed and thrived. These discussions are imperative because your major can be determinative.
I am concerned that she may have not been appropriately accommodated, however I can not directly speak to that. It is important to note that stress around tests is a huge problem and getting larger. With more and more students enrolled, there is an over-reliance on tests as the only method of evaluation. When I was in school just a decade ago, tests were utilized, of course, but not at the same level they are now.
“Personal responsibility. …not the university’s problem.” This is the generalized sort of comment that both has the most traction and is the most unfair and wrong. Yes, accommodating your students is every university’s problem. Every. Single. One. Universities are in the business of student welfare and they are usually, in a very large way, funded by our tax dollars as either a public university or through receiving large federal grants. This makes them responsible to be in accordance of our laws. The ADA is not optional. It is far from optional. It is not optional in workplaces, and it is not optional at a university. Universities usually have entire departments dedicated to accommodating disability, but this is a university problem. I spend every day helping students receive university accommodation for viable disabilities, and I still feel there is a long way to go until students are fully accommodated. There is still quite a bit of reluctance in academia in accommodating fully. This is not an insignificant problem, and I hope people know that.
“Wow… shocking someone making another excuse and blaming someone else other than themselves.” A disability isn’t an excuse. A disability is a disease. An excuse is that a student spent all night partying, not that a student is blind, had ADHD that manifests in circumambulating all night or has a physical disability that makes it impossible to transfer classes without being late. Regularly, I meet students at the brink of expulsion from university because professors and administrations have refused to accommodate. This is not an isolated problem.
I have found that working with the schools for more tailored and appropriate accommodations is preferable to suing, but I cannot say that I would never file a suit for a client. The stakes are too high and often administrators are too reluctant to advocate on a disabled student’s behalf. Most of the students I work with who have disabilities have a problem graduating, and none leave university unscathed. It is not a good time to be a disabled student at a university, but I have hope that with a new generation of more sensitive academics, change will occur.
American students are graduating at record rates, but disabled students simply are not. (Source)
Before we condemn, Ms. Burbella for what may just be a result of bad counsel about her major, know that this is a big problem and this case is just the tip of the iceberg.
I do want to know what you think about this issue so let us know! I know it is a toughie, but the stakes are high. Let’s figure this out!