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College & Workforce Readiness

Students With Disabilities Fear Blowback From College Admissions Scandal

By Christina A. Samuels — March 13, 2019 4 min read
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Allegations of a complex and illegal scheme by wealthy families to get their children into top universities has students with disabilities, their families, and advocates worried about the backlash.

In a lengthy indictment released Tuesday, federal authorities charge that some students lied about having disabilities so they could get special accommodations on college admissions tests.

As the details spilled out, people with disabilities took to social media to say that unsympathetic teachers, test officials and professors already make it hard enough on students with disabilities, particularly disabilities that are “invisible,” such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Having accommodations and disabilities linked to this elaborate scam is devastating, they said.

“It’s so frustrating, because the people who will be hurt by this will the ones who need the accommodations,” said Lindsay Jones, the chief executive officer of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “And it’s not going to be in the news when they’re hurt by this. It will be in those quiet moments, where they’re sitting in the disability office” at a college or university, she said.

NCLD is a backer of the RISE Act, which would require colleges and universities to accept individualized education programs or Section 504 plans as evidence of a student’s disability.

Disability Accommodations Used for Fraudulent Purposes

According to the indictment, part of the fraud worked this way: Some students were granted accommodations that allowed them to take college admissions tests such as the SAT and the ACT over two days instead of just one, and in an individualized setting instead of with a group. The indictment also said that the system was also manipulated so that students could take their tests at certain locations.

Law enforcement officials say that at that point, William Singer, the founder of a college preparatory business called known as “The Key,” parceled out bribes to have third parties take the tests for the students, or to review and correct answers on tests the students submitted.

The money came from tens of thousands of dollars to The Key in “contributions” from well-off parents, the government charges. Among those indicted were Felicity Huffman, one of the stars of the television show “Desperate Housewives,” and Lori Loughlin, known for her work on the show “Full House.”

Many students say that receiving accommodations was far from the smooth process described in the indictment.

Savannah Treviño-Casias, a senior at Arizona State University, said she went through months of red tape with the College Board before being granted extended time to take the SAT. She has dyscalculia, a disability that impairs a person’s ability to understand numbers and math facts. She was also granted the ability to take the test by herself.

The accommodations reduced her anxiety and allowed her to focus more deeply on the math questions. But extra time didn’t give her an edge on learning concepts she didn’t already know, she said.

“Accomodations are there to provide more equal access, a more equal opportunity,” said Treviño-Casias, an honors student who is majoring in psychology and family and human development. “It’s not there to make it so that we’re better than anyone else.”

But her teachers have not always seen it that way. One college math professor refused to grant her accommodations, saying she just needed to work harder. “There are so many people like him,” she said. “I think this will make it that much harder for children with learning disabilities to prove it and have people believe they really need accommodations.”

Implications for Students in Special Education

Judith K. Bass, an educational consultant, provides college consulting services to high school students with learning differences. She is also the chairwoman of the American Institute of Certified Educational Planners. She believes that the scandal will make the SAT, ACT, and others look more closely at students who request accommodations, but that students with documented needs should still be able to receive the accommodations they’re entitled to.

“It is going to be frustrating, and I’m sure they’re going to scrutinize a little more,” Bass said. “But if the data is there, the documentation is there ... I know it’s going it’s going to cause a lot of angst, but I do think this piece of it will blow over.”

She recommends that students take ownership of their disabilities, by writing letters of explanation to colleges explaining why their test scores or some of their grades may have been influenced by their disability. “Colleges recognize that students who are self-aware are going to be good college students,” Bass said.

But many students with disabilities choose not to disclose when they’re in college that they have learning differences, said Elizabeth Hamblet, learning disabilities specialist with 20 years’ experience working in disability services offices at three universities. She is also the author of From High School To College: Steps to Success for Students with Disabilities.

Unlike in the K-12 system, colleges have no legal responsibility to identify students with disabilities; students must request accommodations for themselves. It would be unfortunate if the scandal stops students from asking for supports that they need, Hamblet said. Students who have college-approved accommodations should not hesitate to present their approvals to professors, she said.

“While I can’t guarantee that every professor will be receptive, I really feel like I’ve heard many stories of students who found professors interested in talking more about it, or who have taken it in a very matter of fact way,” Hamblet said. “To not ask for what you need because you’re worried about what others may think, that seems a shame to me.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.