The school of soft knocks:
Does anybody really benefit when universities cut academic corners to accommodate the disabled?

Aug. 17, 2001


Like every child, I dreamt of what I'd become when I grew up. When I was three years old, my mother enrolled me in ballet classes. Aside from growing too big, my feet never could keep in step. So, I'm not a ballerina. Some dreams, it seems, are realistic, some are not.

Mary Stevenson has always dreamed of going to university. She'd like to be a doctor, a nurse or a lab technician. The problem is, she has Down syndrome.

Most loving parents would assume that a developmental disability of this type precludes university and would encourage other dreams. But not Mary's parents.

"I feel that everyone should be able to run with their own dreams," says Barb Stevenson. "Why shouldn't Mary go to university?"

Mary's mother is not alone in encouraging such dreams. In British Columbia, a dozen parents recently organized to promote "inclusive" post-secondary education. Already such programs exist in universities in Alberta and Prince Edward Island, where individuals with mild to severe mental and developmental disabilities attend classes and take part in varsity activities. There are no academic or intellectual standards for admission, no attendance requirements, no grades and no exams. "Graduates" receive their own special diplomas—not to be confused with real ones.

Inspired by the humane motives of parents, friends and academics, efforts to fulfil such dreams are part of a larger movement to end discrimination against people with disabilities. Awareness of the special needs of the physically disabled was heightened with the influx of Vietnam veterans in the 1970s. Buildings were remodelled to provide wheelchair access, elevators were equipped with braille lettering and crosswalks with beeping sounds. These initiatives made sense.

Then, in 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the sweeping Americans with Disabilities Act which Senator Tom Harkin, the chief sponsor, described as "the 20th-century Emancipation Proclamation for people with disabilities." The effect was to expand the terms of reference to include mental as well as physical disabilities. If students could provide letters saying they suffered from learning disabilities, they were to be granted special consideration; modified assignments, exemptions from deadlines and extended time for examination writing.

This too seemed to make sense but, like many laudable ideas, it has gone too far.

A California business student afflicted with dyscalculia, the dysfunction that prevents one from learning math, complained after her college declined to waive a required math course. Despite its genuine attempts to accommodate her impairment, including extensive tutoring and extra time on tests, the college was found responsible in that "it is discriminatory to require the student to consume his or her time and jeopardize his or her grade point average taking a particular mathematics course when (it has been) determined that the student, due to his or her disability, is highly unlikely to pass the course ..." In other words, it's OK to skip the course - and to ignore the math skills needed to run a business.

Here's a hint of just how much sillier it can get. When an aspiring attorney, Marilyn Bartlett, who claimed to have a disability in reading and "phonological processing" graduated from the Vermont Law School, she petitioned the New York Board of Law Examiners for special arrangements for her bar exams. Specifically, she wanted unlimited time for writing the test, access to food and drink, a private room and someone to transcribe her answers. The board did not accept her claim of disability and refused. After her third failure, she sued. In her ruling, Judge Sonia Sotomayor found in Bartlett's favour, stating that she would "have a substantial impairment in performing (the) job" of a practising lawyer.

The fact that Bartlett would have a very hard time meeting the job requirements of a practising lawyer was, in the judge's opinion, precisely the reason why Bartlett had a protected right to become a practising lawyer. Her inability to pass the bar exam was considered proof that she had a disability (at least when compared to her classmates) and ironically, but legally, this gave her the right to be a lawyer.

Only in America, you say.

Don't be so sure. A few years ago, a University of Ottawa student successfully filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission claiming that the university failed to accommodate his memory skills, which functioned differently with regards to "names, formulas and dates."

So, will Mary get to live out her dream of completing university and working in a hospital?

It could be sad for everyone, including Mary, if she did. Perhaps we all need to take more seriously the skills and abilities required to achieve dreams. Perhaps we need to express more respect for those challenged by disabilities who do manage to accomplish, in reality, more than might be expected. As a Toronto woman, Astra Milberg, who has Down syndrome, recently said: "To me, a dream is just a dream. When I dream, I go after cloud nine, but I'm just daydreaming and its not reality. I wake up from all my dreams."

Oh, that we could all tell the difference.

@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,