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Preserving the Right to Deny

July 16, 2008

Expanding protections for disabled students is fine with higher education officials, so long as accommodating those students doesn’t erode academic standards, according to testimony given to a U.S. Senate committee Tuesday. But, as the hearing revealed, some are concerned that "standards" could be defined to exclude the very students federal laws are designed to help.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, told lawmakers in a Tuesday hearing that colleges and universities welcome a proposed broadening of the Americans With Disabilities Act. In broadening the Americans With Disabilities Act, as some lawmakers aim to do, students would still be classified as disabled, even if they controlled symptoms with medication or other treatments.

That said, he urged lawmakers to protect the authority of institutions to preserve standards, even if that meant denying some students access to particular routes of study.

“We are here today to ask the Senate to reaffirm, directly in the statute, the principle that institutions need not provide an accommodation when doing so would alter essential aspects of programs or fundamentally alter or diminish the academic standards set by our institutions,” Hartle said in testimony submitted to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

The Senate hearing comes on the heels of legislation passed by the House last month, which was designed to insure protections for disabled people, even if they’ve treated their symptoms with medication or other means. Supreme Court rulings over the past several years have found that disabled people who can function normally don’t qualify as disabled, sparking criticism that scores of people with diseases like cancer and epilepsy are no longer protected under federal law.

A Skeptical Senator

Leading Tuesday’s discussion was Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who played a key role in passing the Americans With Disabilities Act 18 years ago. Harkin, who is promising Senate legislation within the next month, often seemed perplexed by education leaders’ concerns about the House bill. He was particularly skeptical of Hartle’s suggestion that higher education be provided a specific clause in the legislation, giving colleges and universities “deference” to determine which accommodations are unacceptable.

“We can’t do that,” Harkin said bluntly.

To clarify his position, Hartle offered an example of an accommodation that he said would undermine academic standards. He noted that students of comparative literature need to be able to read and speak a foreign language, and that this basic language requirement must be upheld to preserve the integrity of such degrees.

Hartle’s example led to one of the more interesting exchanges of the session, with Harkin arguing that a mute student in the 21st century could likely still do the work necessary in comparative literature if the proper accommodations were made. Harkin suggested that academe may be tied to some “antiquated conceptions and dictums handed down from centuries ago” that “have to be challenged once in a while.”

Stating the position of the American Council on Education, Hartle said the council merely wants future legislation to affirm what is already established in case law.

“We’re worried about the potential impacts on academic programs,” he said after the hearing.

Chai Feldblum, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center who testified at the hearing, said there is nothing in the House bill that would force colleges and universities to change standards. After the hearing, she called any such suggestion “completely irrational.”

Feldblum, a former American Civil Liberties Union attorney, said “I just think it’s stupid to add something to a statute when one doesn’t need to.”

 

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