Wednesday, November 27th, 1996
© 1996 Loring C. Brinckerhoff, Ph.D.
This article first appeared in the Postsecondary Disability Network News Number 27, Spring, 1996.
The Spring of 1995 was filled with great excitement at the Learning Disabilities Support Services (LDSS) Office. We were actively planning our May fund raising benefit and awards ceremony at Christie’s on Park Avenue in New York. This event was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my career. Hundreds of alumni, faculty, parents, friends, and students attended the event. That night we raised over $300,000 for students with learning disabilities at Boston University. I personally presented the “gift of style award” to a pediatric neurosurgeon with dyslexia, Dr. Fred Epstein. Dr. Epstein is the surgeon that distraught parents turn to after they have exhausted all other options. He candidly talked about his learning disability and how he had failed Chemistry in high school; yet through the support of his family and teachers, he pressed forward to the top of his field.
Little did I know that the Provost and newly elected President, Mr. Jon Westling, was putting the finishing touches on a speech for the Heritage Foundation. In that speech he expressed his concerns about the proliferation of Learning Disability Universities (LDUs) that were cropping up on the higher education landscape. He expressed his dismay about the “lowering of academic standards” and “swaddled” students who are routinely granted waivers in foreign language because of an “alleged” learning disability. Although I had heard through the grapevine that the new President-elect was concerned about “waivers,” I knew that the LDSS Office had never recommended that a requirement be waived. “Course substitutions” were recommended for some students who couldn’t master a foreign language, but these accommodations were approved by the Deans of the College of Arts and Sciences, not by LDSS. I naively thought that I had nothing to be concerned about.
During the summer, the Provost was busy writing another speech for an audience halfway around the world in Australia. This speech entitled, “Disabling Education: The Culture Wars Go to School,” focused on the topic of learning disabilities and the cultural changes that are emerging in education. In this speech Mr. Westling stated that:
“The expansive and undifferentiated definition of learning disablement which has become common in our schools ensures that students with severe deficits do not get the attention they need; students with less severe impairments are trained to the trellis of dependency on their special status and the accommodations that are made to it; and everyone suffers from the resulting pedagogical sclerosis.”
In the Fall, the LDSS Office received a memo from the Office of the Provost with new directives and new policies. The handwriting was on the wall; the LDSS Office was under attack. We were instructed to revise procedures for identifying, serving, and accommodating students with learning disabilities (LD). The Provost overturned the course substitution option for students with LD. He required that all LD testing and documentation be dated within the last three years, that reports be written by those with medical or neuro-psychological training, and that all accommodations recommended in the report be based on “medical and scientific evidence.” He also advised the LDSS Office that the Office of the Provost would review all LD documentation and any subsequent requests for accommodations.
Kip Opperman, the ADA/504 Coordinator, a twelve-year veteran of Boston University, turned in his resignation. After much deliberation, I followed suit two weeks later because I could not support the new directives. I joined Kip because I didn’t want the public to view this as just one “disgruntled employee.” I wanted the LD field to know that something had gone awry at Boston University. My greatest concern is not just for the students on this campus, but for those throughout the country and in Canada. What will be the ripple effect as we navigate through these choppy higher education waters? Based upon the experiences of the past six months, I have some insights to share.
I have also referenced the position paper AHEAD issued early in March entitled, Provision of Services for Postsecondary Students with Learning Disabilities.
Six Challenges Facing the Field#l – Without institutional support from top administration, the job of an LD service provider can be undermined.
The LDSS Office was passively supported by President John Silber until the Provost, Mr. Westling, now President-elect, moved in to take over the administration of the University. He viewed the LDSS Office as trying to lower or “circumvent” academic standards. Mr. Westling’s views about college students with learning disabilities are public record and are outlined in two speeches and his recent appearance on “Good Morning America.” His directives managed to undermine the entire staff of Disability Services. All of the LDSS staff members have now left BU or are in the process of finding suitable employment elsewhere.
#2 – LD documentation is the cornerstone of effective service delivery, and the manner in which it is interpreted can have far reaching impact.
If LD testing is inadequate, then everything else falls apart. The LDSS Office has had written standards regarding acceptable documentation for students with learning disabilities since 1992, but the Provost found that the standards were not rigorous enough. In a memo to Kip Opperman the Provost stated that:
- Students are required to provide current evaluations of their learning disabilities within the last three years. (He based this three year recency rule on Department of Education guidelines for grades K-12).
- Evaluations must include test results that support the conclusions drawn by the diagnostician. LDSS staff was instructed not to accept an evaluation that fails to report test results or that includes a recommendation inconsistent with those results.
- The Office of the Provost requested that the LDSS Office submit a list of required tests necessary to evaluate each type of learning disability for final approval.
- Individuals who provide evaluations of learning disabilities should be physicians, clinical psychologists, or licensed psychologists and must have a record of reputable practice.
- All requests for accommodations from a student with a LD must contain an analysis by the LDSS staff of the LD evaluation. The analysis must contain an assessment of the evaluation report, and explanation of the “claimed disability,” and the effects of the claimed disability.
- The LDSS Office must provide scientific or medical evidence supporting the existence of the claimed disability, a statement of the requested accommodation(s), and scientific or medical proof that the requested accommodation(s) will enable a student to compensate for his/her disability.
- All requests for accommodations for a student with LD must contain an academic history of the student including high school and college transcripts.
Postsecondary disability service providers must continue to be diligent in determining eligibility for services and accommodations; but, as noted by AHEAD, “Only individuals with no training and experience would presume to make such critical decisions affecting the basic civil rights of a group of people on the basis of ignorance and stereotypic assumptions, including the assumption that the professional community is in the business of inventing disabilities in order to please their clients.”#3 – A student’s right to confidentiality may or may not include the Office of the Provost.
The Office of the Provost instructed Disability Services to send copies of every accommodation letter that had been written this year for students with learning disabilities. They also asked to review the entire folder on every student who was requesting a course substitution and/or accommodation.
The LDSS Office complied with this directive, only after requesting that it be put in writing. The Office of the Provost reviewed and evaluated over 200 student folders and accommodation letters and denied the requested accommodations of 27 out of 28 students in this initial audit.
#4 – An institution may set its own academic standards but it needs to balance these standards with the rights of individuals with disabilities.
The LDSS Office developed the course substitution package in foreign languages and math with the Deans of the College of Arts and Sciences for students who had significant language-based learning disabilities or dyscalculia. It represented nearly two years of deliberate work with deans and department chairs in mathematics and foreign languages. In one stroke of the pen, the Provost declared this invalid. The AHEAD position statement addressed this point by stating that Congress did not “grant exemptions to covered entities who sought to rationalize discriminatory acts in the guise of high standards.” There was no collaboration or open discussion of this change in policy prior to the Provost’s directive. I was totally blind-sided. Mr. Westling stated that, “It is difficult to conceive of a meaningful degree in liberal arts that does not require a student to achieve proficiency in a foreign language.”#5 – The Office of the Provost determines what constitutes appropriate documentation for a learning disability and may override the opinions of LDSS staff.
The Provost and his assistant provided the LDSS Office with written determinations as to whether or not a learning disability or ADHD was “valid.” They also determined what accommodations or combination of accommodations were appropriate. The AHEAD position statement mentions that a “qualified professional” should have experience diagnosing and treating adolescents and adults with learning disabilities. To my knowledge, the Office of the Provost has no one on staff with these credentials. Most professionals in our field view diagnostic decision-making as a team process and not the exclusive domain of any one individual.
#6 – The Dean of Students Office can require LDSS staff to inform students of the decisions made by the Office of the Provost.
When the LDSS Office wrote an initial draft letter to be sent to students stating that a decision had been made by the Office of the Provost about their accommodation request, the LDSS Office was instructed by the Dean of Students Office to delete the words “Office of the Provost” from the letter. Thus, the letters containing the Provost’s decisions were sent under the signature of the LDSS Director. The AHEAD position statement stresses that “decisions regarding eligibility, service delivery, and accommodations are the province of persons possessing the training and experience which is a prerequisite to making these decisions with integrity.”
It was at this point, as I signed the first batch of accommodation rejection letters, that I realized that I simply could not continue working at an institution that did not value the professional opinion of the Director and staff of the LDSS. I was not going to mask someone else’s words as my own. I turned in my letter of resignation on January 28, 1996.
Loring C. Brinckerhoff is a higher education consultant and an adjunct assistant professor of special education at Tufts University. Loring directed the Learning Disabilities Support Services Office at Boston University for five years. He received his doctorate in learning disabilities from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is past-president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). He has authored over 25 articles, manuscripts, and one of the leading texts in the field, Promoting Postsecondary Education for Students with Learning Disabilities (PRO-ED). Loring specializes in programming for college students with learning disabilities, legal rights of adults with learning disabilities, and program evaluation.