Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the responsibilities of schools are quite clear: They need to identify disabled students, determine their needs, and accommodate them. Yet, schools are failing on all three of these fronts, pretty spectacularly, especially in higher education, and the results are actively harming disabled people who are simply trying to obtain equal access to education. Without organising and support from the education community, disabled students will continue to be shortchanged by an education system that doesn’t consider them full human beings.
For students in middle, grammar, and high school, disabilities are often missed. Behaviour or learning issues are attributed to ‘family problems’ or presumptions about race; Black children, for example, are treated as troublemakers instead of being evaluated for ADD/ADHD or vision problems. When they are identified, schools may pay for evaluation, but they’re often reluctant to identify and enact accommodations, putting the burden on parents to research disabilities, network with other disabled people and parents, and attempt to come up with IEP components to help their children.
But in higher education, the stakes get higher. The government mandates education for children under 18, and while it fails numerous disabled students, forcing them out of educational environments and not offering enough social support, it provides even less support for students in higher ed. Take, for example, the issue of diagnosis. Full testing and evaluation for learning disabilities, mental illnesses, and the autism spectrum can cost thousands of dollars. Many insurance companies won’t pay for it, especially student health insurance, and most students can’t afford it out of pocket.
There’s a reason many adults self-DX. It’s because they can’t afford a medical evaluation.
Self-DX may help people understand what’s going on and help them come up with some methods for managing their conditions and lives more effectively, but it doesn’t help them access support. Many schools require disabled students to provide documentation if they want assistance. Such documentation has to include a formal diagnosis with information from a provider, which isn’t an option if you can’t afford such a diagnosis. Yet, without that documentation, you won’t be provided with accommodations like more time on tests and other options to improve your access to education.
Students with impairments that restrict their ability to fully engage in the classroom, thus, are put in a terrible position, because they can’t access what they need to succeed. They may find that their performance in school steadily drops until they are forced to go part time or drop out, all because they couldn’t afford testing that would lead to a concrete diagnosis and subsequent educational supports. Such students may end up leaving school with debt, no useful degree, and no real-life skills to apply to employment (remember, former students wouldn’t qualify for disability, as they haven’t been diagnosed with anything), leaving them in a dead-end position.
The government firmly maintains that while higher education is nice, it remains the responsibility of individual students. While it may provide some financial assistance, it prefers to allow students to shoulder the burden, and that assistance stops with Pell Grants and Federal Direct Loans. Students don’t have access to supports like disability programmes, free medical evaluations, counseling, and other options that could help them navigate colleges and universities with disabilities. In that landscape, it’s not surprising that many disabled students don’t go to school at all, fail to graduate, or graduate with poor marks and struggle to make their way in the world post-graduation.
Depriving a substantial sector of the population of the right to access higher education is horrific and shameful. Disabled students have a great deal to bring to the table, and the failure to fully integrate them into institutions of higher learning despite ADA mandates is a telling commentary on the state of disability and society. Even as disability activists are working on basic issues like the right to choose between institutions, group settings, and private homes, students are struggling to make headway in academia, and these things are connected.
Society fears and hates disability in part because it’s never exposed to disability. In a world where disability is consciously erased and pushed into the corners, where almost no institutions of higher learning work to welcome disabled students, college graduates spend four years (and more) living in a bubble where almost no disabled people exist, or where those who do are expected to struggle in silence. The handful of disabled students who make it are viewed as suspect outliers, and sometimes actively resented — the wheelchair user, for example, who requests that a class be moved to an accessible building.
When people live in a world without disability, they learn both to never consider disability, and to consider disabled people as something less than human. They learn that disabled people don’t belong out in society. They learn that disability is a nonentity, a nonissue, something that shouldn’t matter. They learn that disabled people are ‘better off’ cloistered from society and that they can’t actually function, let alone thrive, in public spaces. That in turn contributes to attitudes that shape the next generation of opinion, and the next, and so on.
These things matter. Academia is not a vacuum, and the people who leave college and university have a real-world impact. They shape society and public opinion. They play, in fact, an important role in the world around them — and that’s not something that should be taken lightly when considering who is able to go to college, and how.
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Image: Test Pattern, Sauerlaender, Flickr