I love telling stories about clients who have really succeeded. I am sure it isn’t just my influence, as much as I would like to think it is, but it is the amazing spirit of those who have had to overcome so much adversity and are still able to succeed in school. Everyday I wake up with the sun because I am so inspired by the young minds who have accomplished seemingly simple tasks, such as graduation, in the face of such complex circumstances.
Today I want to tell you the story of one such collegian. She came to me embroiled in a dispute with her university because she was, in my opinion, being discriminated against because of a documented disability. Her professors, in a not uncommon practice, were playing pass the buck with the Office of Disability Services, leaving the student to suffer. This was happening at an epic level to this terrific person. She came to me with her eyes puffy from crying, wondering why this was happening to her. I think it reassured her to know that this was not an uncommon practice, but this very same news infuriated her parents.
First, a little about this really unfortunate practice. Sometimes I wish I had all day to talk about this, fellow advocates, because it really is infuriating. In many schools, students who are allotted extra time on exams are told to schedule these exams with their professors, because Disability Services is already swamped. Disability Services is often underfunded and over-utilized so they rely on professors to help administer exams. One dean of a prominent school, who shall remain nameless, told me that since up to five students per class need accommodations, it is impossible to properly accommodate all of them, as it would be to burdensome on the professors’ time. The thing that is most upsetting for the students is that they are left to schedule with reluctant and oftentimes ticked off professors because disability services has far less power (most of the time) than tenured faculty. The faculty sometimes don’t believe the students, or subscribe to the pesky notion of laws and accommodations and really don’t have to, because tenure is a wonderful thing for faculty and can be precarious for the disabled student. Of course, this is just my experience as a student advocate, lawyer, teacher and student, but it has been ubiquitous nonetheless. Given what I have said about faculty, I will say this: my friends who are professors and will hopefully be tenured faculty one day will likely (and very happily) put me out of a job. They grew up in an era where accommodating students was the normative and they go out of their way to check on laws and to be sensitive to their students. I am proud to be friends with such visionary academics.
Back to my now friend and former client, we were able to zealously advocate on her behalf and she was able to learn to stand up to her professors with the help of an ally in me and in Disability Services. She graduated in a timely manner and is now gainfully employed in her field of study. I am so proud that she is able to succeed so wildly on her own terms and has become her own best advocate. This is my definition of success. I love being able to understand that people are in trouble, and then help them, but when I really feel successful is when people are able to help themselves. I teach this skill because university faculty is more overwhelming than most and once tenured, really don’t answer to anyone.
The thing about tenure is, and I have written about this before is that it gives professors more license to impose their views on the legality of accommodations. Not to get all technical, but I can’t tell you how many times a client has come to me and told me the professor says “fill in the blank” about accommodations. Well I, for one, do not care what a professor of ecofeminism, art and the coal industry cares about accommodations because it is not their expertise. I hate to be on a soapbox about this but it is so important for our collegians to realize the fallibility of academia and that student rights do matter. So tell your children to fight and question (of course in a respectful way) the words of their professors when he or she tells your son or daughter about accommodations. In many cases, and this is the most important thing to instill in your son or daughter, he or she may be the expert and know more about the law than the professor. Your child has been managing a disability for a number of years, if not a lifetime, and the professor oftentimes has no experience with disability students. Keep this is mind to empower your student and hopefully we can feature him or her in one of our ThrowBack Thursdays as a success story!