|Photo © US Department of Education | Creative Commons / Flickr
[image: Three students at computer workstations, seen from behind.]
Wealthy people using their privilege to bypass regular people problems like paying taxes is nothing new. But using that clout to exploit disability accommodations—to give their college-aspiring children truly unfair and also illegal advantages—is infuriating on multiple levels. As disability policy professional Rebecca Cokley noted at Teen Vogue:
“This behavior is harmful because when celebrities and others with privilege use a marginalized community’s civil rights as a ‘VIP pass,’ it frames reasonable accommodations as something ‘special’ that you should be able to buy, versus actual civil rights that give people with disabilities an equal seat at the table.”
Adrienne Wichard-Edds reported on the scandal for the Washington Post, from the perspectives of several irate parents of students with disabilities:
“For children who really do struggle with learning and other disabilities, taking those high-pressure tests is challenging. Those accommodations, which can include extra time to complete the exam, are there to create fairness for students who encounter daily challenges in their education. Parents work overtime fighting to secure these accommodations, to try to level the playing field a bit. So finding out that people are abusing that system is a bitter pill for them to swallow.”
…and I was one of the parents Wichard-Edds talked to:
“The thing that makes me the angriest about this is that my kids are already very hesitant to ask for accommodations because they don’t appear disabled,” says Shannon Rosa, senior editor of the website Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and mom to three children ages 14, 18 and 20 — all of whom have disabilities. “There’s a stigma around receiving accommodations. Some people treat 504s and IEPs like they’re optional, but they’re the law. When you see wealthy parents gaming the system for things that people already have trouble accessing, it makes it even harder for those people who legitimately deserve and need them.”
I was grateful to be included, but the Washington Post article didn’t include all of the points I discussed on the record, and wanted to emphasize. So I’m discussing them here:
One of the reasons my college-student eldest is hesitant to ask for accommodations isn’t just disability stigma, or anxiety about not being believed. It’s because she’s an intensely ethical person who knows that there are other students who need accommodations, but don’t get them because they’re undiagnosed. And the reason they are undiagnosed often has to do with the privilege gap underlying this entire mess.
My family lives in a town that is adjacent to two of the wealthiest towns in the country, but our city has a high proportion of low socioeconomic status families and English learners. If parents can’t afford to take time off of work to attend IEP or 504 meetings, and/or don’t speak English as a first language or at all, that makes accessing disability diagnoses and supports difficult. In addition, parents who can’t hire professionals to help them navigate the often impenetrable disability supports and disability education systems aren’t even aware of the rights their kids are legally entitled to.
So it’s not only that kids with disabilities get penalized for seeking accommodations they need and deserve—and that those wealthy parents exploited for their own, non-disabled kids’ advantages. It’s that many families don’t even have the ability to get their kids legal access to IEPs/504s. And that’s just wrong, in all the ways.