September 19, 2019

WAITE | Is Higher Education Closing Doors on Disability?

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My brother’s nickname for me growing up was “spell check.” Anytime he wanted to look something up or needed to write something down,  he would say “spell-check, how do you spell ‘their’?” and I would rattle off the letters he requested. My brother Daniel is three years older than me, but he has always been terrible at spelling.

In second grade, Daniel came home from school one day extremely upset and cried to our mom, insisting that his teacher thought that he was dumb. His third grade teacher laughed in my mom’s face when she mentioned Daniel going to college in the future. The teacher was amused because at nine years old, my brother still could not read. And based on her laugh, my bet is that she believed he never would.

School never became less of a struggle for Daniel. He needed resources to level the playing field between himself and his classmates — resources that our rural schools had few of.

Last year, I took ILRLR 1200: Intro to Disability Studies, and learned — and still am — about history that my K-12 education forgot to teach me. Specifically, I learned about the history of the Disability Rights Movement and the social model of disability. Disability scholars who concur with this model contend that what disables an individual is not their impairment or difference, but rather, the societal barriers put in place that exclude individuals because of said impairments or differences.

Daniel is brilliant. He taught himself how to code, he has built his own computer, fixed hundreds of others and he has a nearly eidetic memory. In a lot of ways, his intellectual capabilities supersede that of some of my peers here on campus. The problem, however, is that the traditional education system often does not have the measures to aptly test his and other neurodivergent individuals’ brilliance. Neurodiversity refers to variations in the human brain that are “atypical” to what society deems to be the norm.

While I never thought of my brother’s learning disability as some sort of burden, it was not until I took the course that I began to question what I thought I understood about his adverse relationship with school. What if there was another way to assess Daniel’s aptitude? What if there were better programs that looked at his talents and his strengths, instead of leaning so largely on GPAs and standardized tests? Why are there little to no definitive programs at colleges to recruit people like my brother who don’t adhere to the traditional education system?

I recently learned about Landscape, an update to the College Board’s “adversity score” index that was originally released in May.  Landscape aims to give universities a holistic view of their prospective students. Through the index, the College Board provides institutions of higher education with comprehensive data that is indicative of inherent disadvantages or hardships posed to these students. The idea is that with Landscape, colleges can ensure more equal opportunities between candidates. Assessments are made regarding high school and neighborhood information, such as percentage of children living under the poverty line, typical educational attainment in the area and the average crime activity in the surrounding neighborhood.

But what if Landscape, or methodologies like it, included indicators such as how students learn, or analyzed what types of resources are attributed to the disability services at the students’ high school? It is certainly important that students disclose their disability at their own volition, but  that should not mean that colleges should refrain from implementing programs to engage individuals who ordinarily might not have the opportunity to be noticed because of a barrier to their learning. This is working under the assumption that the methodology is used in a non discriminatory and equitable way to encourage underrepresented students’ success.

In my brother’s case, the cards stacked up against him early in his education when his teachers doubted his intelligence and ability to even attend college. Though there are required resources made available to students with disabilities in both primary school and college, there seems to be a disconnect between the two entities which suggests to neurodivergent students that higher education is not a prospect for them.

For students on campus who have self-identified as having a learning disability, I wonder if their numbers accurately represent the number of students who would perhaps also excel at this school but because of institutionalized barriers within the system, are instead blocked from the opportunity. My guess? The current numbers do not reflect even a fraction of the potential.

When I asked Zebadiah Hall, director of Student Disability Services on campus, about his stance on the need for higher University engagement within the disability community, he said that he “would like to see more participation of [his] office within the community.” Hall also revealed his interest in going to local high schools to inform students about the resources Cornell can provide.

Through college outreach programs and indexes like Landscape, institutions have demonstrated that they recognize the complexity of outside barriers. Assessing the neighborhood poverty rates and crime rates that may adversely affect potential students is evidence of this. But even with this knowledge, universities enact little to no outreach to actively consider and address the barriers that limit opportunities for students with learning disabilities. Why are universities not attempting to bridge the gap between disability services in primary schools and how they affect students’ paths to higher education?

The idea that my brother has an inherent disadvantage against him because he thinks differently from his peers is something I think about a lot. Because the reality is, institutional barriers will remain in place outside of academic settings, where in fact they are more prominent. We live in a world where some of Daniel’s best qualities are deemed problems that need fixing, instead of being rightfully celebrated.

Sidney Malia Waite is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at smw327@cornell.edu. Waite, What? runs every other Friday this semester.