So most of my readers know that I am, as someone recently put it, a reformed lawyer. As much as I have tried to “reform”, being a lawyer is something fundamental and a part of me and informs my advocacy, teaching and general outlook. It has also led my to ask a bunch of hard questions about what is going on in the universities worldwide and how the treat students, in particular students with exceptionalities. I was so struck by this: I made it part of my life’s work. To teach students how to self advocate and how to learn what their rights are and how to protect them once they are away from home.
Today this story has broke across the internet and I expect to get bigger. At Misericordia University in Pennsylvania, Jennifer Burbella filed suit because of what she perceives as discriminatory practices against her during her pursuit of a nursing degree. What many reports fail to mention is that this young lady was (at least in her and her lawyer’s opinion) not given appropriate accommodations for the exam. The internet is aghast by this student’s suit under the section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I have heard and read comments that this is what trophy culture produces, that they wouldn’t want a nurse who suffers from these conditions and even worse.
Little to no sympathy has been given to this young lady, and I think that is wrong. Do I think this lawsuit has validity? I am not sure. But I am prepared to sit with the unsettling notion that sometimes professors do not properly accommodate students with disabilities. Why am I prepared to confront this? Because I see it every single day of my life. University is a precarious time for the legality of those with special needs: students who were accommodated under IDEA are no longer fully accommo dated to succeed on the oftentimes overly broad ADA. What is worse? No one cares.
Who does this impact? The students, especially students with so-called invisible disabilities because they have to constantly and relentlessly advocate for their own self-interest in school and be doubted, ridiculed and sometimes discriminated against by their teachers. Again, how do I know this happens? Because I saw it happen yesterday with a student who was not being given her accommodation of extra time with an examination and I saw it last week when a student, just the day before finals, was told there was no space for him to take his exam in a quiet room because there was no more proctors. This happened to me, I was suffering from lupus my first term of college, and I was forced to go on a field trip in the hot sun if I wanted to get an A instead of a B in a geology class.
So before you call Ms. Burbella a thug, know that from my perspective this problem is deeply ingrained and systemic, and there is a widespread culture of not accommodating disabled students at the college level. It is also not easy to tell the world in the form of a lawsuit that you suffer from anxiety disorders, or any disorder for that matter. I did not tell any employer that I had lupus for years and would constantly overwork to make sure no one found out. I do not know if this lawsuit is meritorious or not, but I wish that people who are quick to say that it isn’t know that discrimination against disabled students happens all day everyday. It is all of the country and it is something we need to start discussing. If it takes a lawsuit, for me, that is ok.