As a student with learning disability accommodations, it devastated me to watch the newly appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stammer a response to Rep. Tim Kaine about federal protection of students with disabilities.
As Secretary of Education, DeVos should be a champion for struggling students – not another source of shame. She should be the first to say that disabled students deserve help and accommodations – not that the issue is “worth discussion,” or that the matter “should be left to the states.” That answer is a copout and frankly, it’s pathetic for someone that’s just been handed the keys to the education department.
My learning disabilities are fairly mild compared to what they could be. And I am lucky to have found medications and effective strategies to cope with them. But I need my professors to cooperate with me in order for these strategies to work.
Unfortunately, some teachers are unwilling to do so even when the law requires them to. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act requires teachers to provide accommodations for medically documented disabilities. Diagnosed learning disabilities like mine fall under this category.
Last year, I politely and professionally scheduled a meeting with a teacher to discuss the accommodations legally afforded to me by my university and the Americans with Disabilities Act as I do with all my teachers at the beginning of a new semester. In fact, I go out of my way to ensure that all my teachers are fully informed on my needs and are warned well in advance when I need to schedule the 50 percent extended time I receive on tests because of my accommodations.
When I arrived at this meeting, my professor chuckled and told me I was obviously trying to get special treatment. He told me his goal was “to accommodate me as little as possible.” He refused to meet my needs, denied me accommodations I am legally allowed, tried to publicly isolate and humiliate me in his classes and constantly patronized my disability as something I had made up.
The only reason he didn’t persecute me further was that FERPA laws prevent him from telling my classmates about my learning disability. His words still hurt me – I will never forget bursting into tears as I bolted from the classroom, feeling more dehumanized than ever before. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time I have been treated this way, nor was it the last.
It is not my job to justify decades of evidence that learning disabilities are real conditions to adults who are unwilling to listen. It is my job to do my best as a student and I need my accommodations to do so. Being different is hard enough; receiving disability accommodations should be made as easy and comfortable as possible as it is already a vulnerable process.
Betsy DeVos’ suggestion that disabled students should not automatically be protected by the government undermines this entirely. What we need is support, not more questions or hoops to jump through.
I wish Mrs. DeVos knew that sometimes it is hard for me to stay confident in my intelligence. When I struggle for hours on a task that my classmates completed with ease, it is natural for me to wonder in frustration – am I just stupid? Should I even keep trying?
But I’m not stupid. In fact – I’m an intelligent, capable, creative student. I just learn a little differently then most of my peers. And in order for me to demonstrate my knowledge, I need my accommodations to even the playing field. Despite what my professor thought, I am not trying to get special treatment.
It is a travesty that Mrs. DeVos wouldn’t want to ensure students like me get the time we need, or whatever other accommodations a professional has concluded a student needs in order to function at the same level as their peers. We need a Secretary of Education who is willing to fight for us.