Civil rights attorney Paul Grossman has done legal work on behalf of students with disabilities — including learning disabilities (LD) — for nearly three decades. Paul assigns much of his commitment to civil rights to his educational experiences as an individual with LD. Paul graduated high school as a remedial reader, left college because he could not pass spanish, and returned, finally graduating near the top of his law school class.
We asked Paul about the legal rights and responsibilities of college students with learning disabilities. Note: Throughout this interview Grossman was speaking entirely in his private capacity. No official support or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education is intended or should be inferred. Following is a transcript of our interview with Paul.
Q: Your track record and experience in civil rights law is impressive. How does it relate to your work in disability law?
A: My career as a civil rights lawyer did not begin nor will it end just with the issue of disability. I’m old enough to have handled a few school desegregation cases in the South and some of the first large urban school district cases on behalf of limited English speaking children. I remember when women did not get into graduate school. Today, women make up more than half the student bodies of some our best medical and law schools. In each of these areas, progress toward equal educational opportunity has been driven as much from recognition of the benefits of diversity as the impact of the law. Today, diversity in the student body with regard to race, national origin, and gender are considered an essential element of a high quality education for every student in the classroom. Now, we must make the same case for students with disabilities, including students with learning disabilities. I am quite clear that students with disabilities greatly enhanced the teaching experiences in my classes at the Hastings College of Law.
It always disturbs me that so few people know how much individuals with disabilities have benefited from the race, national origin, and gender civil rights movements and equally important that individuals with disabilities had to organize, engage in civil disobedience, and risk their health to get our disability rights laws into effect. The first major piece of disability rights legislation was Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The regulations that make it possible to enforce Section 504 would not exist but for such activities.
Q: Many parents have a good grasp of the legal rights which Section 504 and the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) provide their children through high school. From a legal standpoint, what do they (and their kids) need to know about the legal rights of college students with LD?
A: It’s critical for them to understand that the IDEA does not apply to higher education and that Section 504 applies quite differently in college than in high school. There are no IEPs in college!
A student cannot assume that, just because he was found to be eligible for services under the IDEA or Section 504 in high school, the same evaluation documentation will be sufficient in college. Further, the range of services and accommodations that are available in college are not the same as in high school. The due process rights in high school are quite extensive; by comparison, the ones in college are fairly limited.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to elementary school, middle school, high school, and to virtually every college and university. The truth is that, in elementary and secondary education, the ADA has little impact. In higher education, the ADA has great importance. Nonetheless, especially for students with learning disabilities, in higher education, the single most important law is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This law applies to nearly every college and university in the United States.
If you are not a “qualified” individual, neither Section 504 nor the ADA protects you. You must meet the essential academic requirements for admission or for staying in college. You must also meet the essential technical requirements, which usually pertains to two different things. One is the ability to comply with the code of conduct. Students in college with disabilities who get into discipline problems will not be able to avail themselves of manifestation hearings, etc. Generally, their disabilities are not very pertinent to disciplinary proceedings. The other types of technical qualification tend to pertain to physical performance standards. For example, if you want to be admitted to a dental hygiene program, you may have to show certain fine dexterity skills that are essential to the task. Even if you don’t have those fine motor skills because you have a disability, you may well not get excused from meeting those qualifications and requirements.
Q: In public elementary and secondary schools, many students with LD are legally entitled to modifications and accommodations. Is that also true in the college and university setting?
A: There are some important accommodations (“academic adjustments”) that students with documented learning disabilities frequently get in college such as early registration, a somewhat reduced course load, and extra time on examinations. But In higher education, modifications to the curriculum that are fundamental are not available. Basically, the university’s legal responsibility is to provide the student with a disability access (via accommodations) to the information that is provided in the curriculum for all students. There is no legal duty to re-teach, repackage, or reformulate that curriculum. There are no special day classes, for example. There isn’t even a duty to provide tutoring unless, of course, such a service is made available to all students.
Q: Are colleges and universities allowed to ask applicants if they have disabilities?
A: It is illegal for a college or university to make a pre-admission inquiry into whether or not an applicant is an individual with a disability. This is in contrast to elementary and secondary school where teachers and other school officials have an affirmative duty to tell parents that they have reason to believe a student may need special education and to suggest an evaluation. Colleges must carefully consider the evaluation information presented to them by a student, and even tell the student what may be missing from the evaluation, but only under very rare circumstances does the college have a duty to conduct or pay for the evaluation.
Q: At what point after being admitted to a college should a student reveal her learning disability?
A: If you need accommodations, the minute you are accepted is a probably a good time to reveal your disability. Unless you start the accommodation process, the university has no responsibility to accommodate your disability. Every college and university has its own accommodation process. It is important to learn about the process in advance. Generally, this process may be identified in the college catalogue or website. Also, there is nothing wrong with calling the disabled student service personnel at a college you are thinking about attending, and asking for information about accommodations. For example, some colleges liberally allow for course substitutions, while others almost never grant a course substitution. Some colleges provide extensive tutoring and learning labs; others provide none.
Accommodations are an opportunity provided to us by law. They are a civil right. Accommodations can make a huge positive difference in our lives; not just for better grades but for all things in life that come with getting a diploma and having a strong academic record — most important, a chance to live up to our potentials. Conversely, your status as a person with a disability will do very little or nothing to excuse poor performance. If you wait a semester to request accommodations, you may end up with an unnecessary set of low first semester grades dragging down your grade point average. However, if you don’t need any accommodations, my advice is to not disclose your disability. One never knows how a particular professor feels about students with learning disabilities.
Q: As a college student with dyslexia, you’ve said you experienced both struggles and success. What advice would you offer young people with LD as they prepare for college and their future?
A: When I decided to return to college, I found it useful to do some reframing, which is to say, I decided to see the world differently. The ancient Jewish philosopher and Rabbi, Hillel, articulated my favorite framework for life, as an individual with a disability. Hillel’s advice begins, “Let no one else set your limits.” I tell children with learning disabilities, “Don’t ever let the guidance counselor tell you what you can or cannot do. You decide what your limits will be.” I think developing this attitude in high school is very important. Students with LD must also understand what a learning disability is. Learning disabilities are real, not just something mom and dad made up to explain to their friends why school is hard for you. As the brain scans performed by Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz reveal, dyslexia, for example is an organic, language processing-based disability. Our brains are wired differently from those of fluent readers. It is harder for us to read for a real reason. It’s not about being lazy or unintelligent.
We are only lazy when we decide to give up on learning how to compensate for our specific weaknesses and best capitalize on our strengths. Every student has to develop a personal effective learning style. A thorough evaluation, perhaps more thorough than one is likely to receive for free from a school psychologist, is part of coming to understand the peaks and valleys of our thinking and learning skills. Of course, it does no good to get such an evaluation, if no one carefully explains to you the meaning of the test results. For example, I learned that it was critically important to me to never miss a lecture in college, even if I didn’t have time to do all the assigned reading.
Also, learn to be your own advocate. The research by Gerber, Ginsberg, and Reiff tells us that the number one issue that distinguishes successful people with learning disabilities is character, whether the LD individual has “fire in the belly.” Find the anger in yourself and harness it! Let that anger be the energy that empowers you to study late at night or study twice as hard for a test as the “next guy.” Let the anger give you the courage to ask for the accommodations to which you are legitimately entitled.
There is often an alternate route to success. The ability to find those routes is an important predicate to having an LD and being successful. Each high school student should develop a self-service strategy in case of trouble in college. What will you do if, one night, you find out there’s more reading to do than you can possibly accomplish? That’s exactly what happened to me at Oxford University. I was expected to read a lengthy, complex book every day. The way I got around it was to read the first and the last chapters, skim the rest of the book, and go to the pub at night. Really! I went to the pub because I knew when my professor was going to be there and I could talk to him about each book. This worked because I am an auditory learner and my professor, after two pints, loved to talk.
Hillel’s guidance continues, “If I am not for others, who am I?” Here too the advice of Hillel is right on point. I know of no better way for someone to get beyond himself and become a better self-advocate, than to learn to advocate for or otherwise support others. LD students are too often misperceived as engaged in “gaming the system,” for a selfish advantage. They are often considered “into” self-victimization. The perception is quite different when the student is known as an individual who works to level the playing field for everyone.
Hillel completes his guidance with the admonition, “If not now, when?” This is so true for LD students in high school. Accommodations in college are a civil right, but one with limits. Not everyone identified in high school as having a specific learning disability will qualify in college as “disabled” and be entitled to accommodations. Even if one receives accommodations they are unlikely to be as robust in college. Students with learning disabilities need to learn the essentials of “self-accommodation” as soon as possible. This means heading for college having practiced self-advocacy in IEP meetings and the classroom, a solid set of independently managed study skills, an individualized approach to learning, and a thorough mastery of adaptive technology.
After “fire in the belly,” mastery of adaptive technology, not IQ, not reading fluency is the single most important predictor of success in college. If you’re going to use a reading pen, Naturally Speaking, Kurzweil 3000, Inspiration, a spell-checker, don’t wait until college to learn how to use it. Start using it now on a daily basis.
Q: What do you believe drives innovation and change in higher education?
A: Of course many things drive innovation in higher education. But, most certainly, those of us who have disabilities are an engine for innovation and positive change in higher education. When we come to a university and ask to modify how a skill is tested, or ask a college to consider whether a requirement is “essential” or not, what we are really doing is asking for creativity and improvement in the quality of the instruction.
One of my missions in life is to convince colleges and universities that the instructional approaches and techniques that work for individuals with disabilities, often work best for all students. Along with many members of the disability community, I would like to “universalize” the breakthroughs that come from including students with disabilities in higher education. I firmly believe that the disability community must see to it that universal design, as opposed to narrow accommodation, becomes the route to our inclusion in the academic world.