OPINION: It’s the cheating that’s the problem, not the accommodations

Some students caught up in the college admissions scandal were given unneeded disability accommodations on standardized tests like the SAT. (Courtesy: Alberto G. via Flickr)

I took my environmental health midterm in a small, private room in the Student Disability Resource Center, typing my answers on a computer disconnected from the internet. I was given four and a half hours to finish the test; one and a half times as long as my classmates without accommodations had.

I finished in an hour, and spent the rest of my morning working on a midterm paper for another class.

These types of disability accommodations are similar to those that some students whose parents were implicated in the massive college admissions cheating scandal received when they took the ACT.

In the wake of the scandal, one of my biggest worries is how students taking both college and graduate/professional school entrance exams will be affected if they need accomodations. As of now, it can take six weeks or more for requests for accommodations to be approved; the recent events of the scandal could prompt even more stringent procedures.

The accommodations these students received were not, in many cases, deserved. Parents paid the doctors involved with the foundation at the center of the scandal to diagnose their children in order to gain accommodations, regardless of whether the children actually had a disability.

The affidavit from FBI special agent Laura Smith quotes a telephone call between the ringleader of the scandal and a parent. In the call, the ringleader instructs the parent to have his daughter tested for learning disabilities, saying, “I also need to tell [your daughter] when she gets tested, to be as, to be stupid, not to be as smart as she is. The goal is to be slow, to be not as bright, all that, so we show discrepancies.”

Stupid. Slow. Discrepancies. It’s the callousness of it all that really irks me. Flippantly describing disabilities in such base language while coaching someone in how to cheat the system belittles the amount of work disabled people and our allies have put into fighting for academic equity.

The fight for educational equity and disability accomodations in academia is often overlooked, to the detriment of all. In the words of Kim Sauder, a disabled self-advocate and scholar, “It has only been about 50 years (if that) since it has become expected for parents to raise their disabled children in the community instead of just depositing us in institutions at birth (or discovery of disability).”

In those 50 years, as disabled children have had greater opportunities to grow up in our communities, the fight for access to education has intensified. In 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, then called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed, promising disabled children equitable education with their non-disabled peers. IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act provide disabled people with legal protections in education from pre-school to grad school.

These gains were fought for with sit-ins, court cases and immense work on the part of disabled students and our families. The gains made through this work, while enshrined in law, are often challenged, and must be constantly protected.

All this for basic accommodations that could all get yanked away, yet again, after this newest scandal. The students and parents implicated in Operation Varsity Blues, the college admissions bribery scandal, likely won’t suffer too greatly.

But any disabled student who has their accommodations questioned, their test dates pushed back, their acceptances deferred for lack of an accessible campus will.

One solution that’s been offered to this whole fiasco is for schools to not require standardized testing scores, or at the very least give these scores less weight while considering applicants. Pitzer College does this and it’s an admirable move, though not without criticism. Certainly, if taking away the stress and complexity of standardized tests encourages more disabled, and otherwise marginalized, students to apply to college, I’m all for it.

“We are all responsible for examining the ways we view accomodations and the students who need them. Too often, students who have fought long and hard, first for a diagnosis and then for accommodations, are scorned as weak, lazy and unequipped for college by administrators, faculty, peers and sometimes our own families.” — Donnie TC Denome PZ ’20, CG ’21

But solutions to this fiasco can’t just lie with the schools changing their policies sometime in the nebulous future. We are all responsible for examining the ways we view accomodations and the students who need them. Too often, students who have fought long and hard, first for a diagnosis and then for accommodations, are scorned as weak, lazy and unequipped for college by administrators, faculty, peers and sometimes our own families.  

The accommodation process at Pitzer, which is basically identical to that of the other 5Cs, is convoluted and multifactorial, perhaps deliberately so. This pales in comparison to the amount of documentation required for tests like the GRE, where it is impossible for an examiner to meet with every applicant.  

Yet stories still abound of refused accommodations, snarky remarks and hateful comments toward disabled students. On the Disability, Illness, and Difference Alliance of the 5Cs Facebook group, of which I am a moderator, people regularly complain about disrespect from professors and other students.

It is not the accommodations or disabled students who are the problem with these systems. Per the court records from the sting, the parents who paid for their children to have falsified accommodations were obscenely, ridiculously rich. Money talks.

Framing this scandal as a failure of a system that needs to be tightened, rather than the deliberate actions of a group of saboteurs, pushes the blame onto disabled people and our allies. It also puts us in danger — for many, academic success is predicated on accommodations.

Disabled people’s integration in academia is not up for debate. We have worked our asses off for too long to be denied the rights we have written into law. It is unfair and completely disrespectful to throw us under the bus to punish non-disabled rule-breakers, especially when other options exist and are being pursued.

Donnie TC Denome PZ ’20, CG ’21 is a 4+1 BA/MPH candidate from Sunnyvale, California, and one of TSL’s opinions editors. Their neighbor wore a shirt saying “Vaccines Cause Adultism” and they’re still giggling about that.

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