13 June 2008

Blocking Access from the Top

When you want to understand an educational institution's attitude toward people with disabilities, it is often helpful to start at the top. When you look at the top you can discover the priorities and attitudes which flow throughout the institutional structure.

This isn't to suggest that there may not be great people who are really trying beneath a disinterested or openly hostile point of executive power, nor to suggest that there may not be disinterested people or active resisters beneath a committed and active center of executive power. Those situations surely exist. But the attitudes at the top will usually be a significant way of measuring the potential for progress.

So I learned something important this week when I walked into the suite of Presidential Offices at my university. I was there for "another issue" but the attitudes toward disability immediately became the dominant thing.

"I would like to find out," I asked, "how I could meet with someone from the President's office, regarding 'x' because I have tried what seems like every other route through the university bureaucracy."

"We have a form you can fill out," the receptionist responded, "and someone will review it and get back with you." She reached into her desk and pulled out a clipboard with a paper form on it.

"Is that form available on-line, or in some accessible form?" I asked. "I have trouble writing."

"access to information and communication is a civil right for people with disabilities"

The receptionist could have responded in a number of ways:

She could have said, "I'm sorry, we do not have that yet, but I'll be happy to fill out the form for you."

Or she could have said, "I'm sorry, we do not have that yet, but I'll be happy to help you fill out the form if you would like."

Or she could have said, "May I get your information and have someone get back to you?"

The apology would have been nice. The suggestion that a flaw in the system might be corrected in the future would have been even nicer. But the essential thing which might have been offered, which should have been offered, was a way around the problem.

But what the receptionist said was this: "The president's schedule is prepared weeks in advance, it wouldn't make any sense to have it online."

A non-answer combined with a refusal to help or even concede that this was anything more than "my problem."

"according to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), "there is an affirmative duty to develop a comprehensive policy in advance of any request for auxiliary aids or services" (Waddell, pars. 3-5)."

I took the form, scribbled my information as best as I could while muttering about "Section 504" and "federal law." I could tell the receptionist was annoyed. I typed her name onto the memo function on my mobile before leaving the office. I like to remember who I've been talking to.

Small thing? Yes.

Deeply revealing? Of course.

If we notice that the university president's office does not even have the legal and social skills training to deal with a very simple expression of disability concerns it becomes clear why the university's library is inaccessible and why accessibility software is not on university computers and why university faculty has no idea what makes a PDF accessible and why the office for disability services is widely reviled by the students who use it. It even explains why not even the educational program aimed at preparing teachers to work with students with special educational struggles to 'get it.'

I left the office and considered opening up my laptop in the corridor, connecting to the nearest Wi-Fi router, and filing an OCR complaint right from the President's IP address. But I decided to wait. The university president has a PhD in education after all, perhaps, if her staff forwards my concerns, she can learn from this "teachable moment."

And what did I learn? Now I understand much more clearly the lack of concern, the lack of urgency, throughout the university regarding either complying with the law or simply "doing the right thing." When leadership doesn't care, it is difficult to expect those below to be much better.

- Ira Socol

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vera said...

have you read about this woman jill bolte taylor? http://www2.oprah.com/spiritself/oss/guest/oss_guest_jboltetaylor.jhtml i think her story is fascinating. it made me think of borderliners and the concept of linear time. did you know hoeg had contact with cultures that i believe don't emphasize this concept? maybe the way his brain works is in some way in sync with those cultures, and so he feels a great affinity for them. i'm gong to do some reading and see if they are any commonalities with aspects of dyslexia and differences btwn the right brain vs left brain. ps sorry for your continuing struggles. but you know that you're making it easier for those coming up.if i were you i would find some consolation in that.

narrator said...


I'll have to read up on this. I do know that Hoeg's investigations of Inuit/Greenlander culture (Denmark's traditional colonial minority group and the center of his novel Smilla's Sense of Snow) lead him to wonder about many of the cognitive structures "assumed" by 'western' thought.

And thanks. I did not really post this to 'get back' at anyone, but to hope someone somewhere with an office staff reads this and wonders if they might make things better. A "how to make things better" post is coming, but probably not today.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

I actually attend your university - and I had a terrible time registering with RCPD. First off, as a college student who struggles to support herself, the copious amounts of paper work that I had to PAY a psychiatrist and physician to fill out was quite frustrating. THEN to be talked to like a psych-ward patient from this 'man' who also had to evaluate me was quite demeaning.

Needless to say, my paperwork for my ADHD was "filled out incorrectly" and I couldn't afford to have my doctor fill it out again anytime soon - so last year I went without any assistance because of a paperwork error...

I also want to note that the VISA process (handing this paper to my professor, and explaining why I needed extra test time - and note taker assistance) was very uncomfortable. I feel more 'different' than my typical peers - because I have a VISA to enter the classroom (like I need permission and a reason for being who I am, and learning the way I do).

narrator said...


I hear you. The system is as unfair as anywhere, and stunningly non-responsive to actual student needs. Their use of the term "visa" says it all. That will be a new post soon.

- Ira Socol