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How to Define Disability

December 12, 2011

WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court ruled Friday that George Washington University was within its rights in 2003 when its medical school kicked out Carolyn Singh, having determined that she was not meeting academic standards. Singh was diagnosed as having a learning disability shortly before she was dismissed, and she claimed that GW violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not accepting her diagnosis and approving adjustments she requested.

The decision could be important not only for Singh and the medical school, but for others in higher education who are debating how to determine whether students have learning disabilities and, if so, what kinds of accommodations are appropriate for such students.

Several college associations filed a brief in the case arguing that colleges and courts need to have leeway to evaluate the validity of claims that students have learning disabilities. The brief argued that many such claims may not be accurate, and that colleges risk being unfair to other students if they accede to all of the requests for accommodations. Lawyers for Singh, however, argued that the college associations' brief was pushing for too much leeway for higher education, in ways that could limit the rights of students with disabilities.

Another issue in the Singh case was the applicability of revisions to the ADA made subsequent to her dismissal. The appeals court ruled that applying those provisions retroactively would be unfair to the university.

In terms of the applicability of this case beyond Singh's claims, the key part of the decision was on whether a district court had reasonably denied her attempts to link her academic performance to any disability she may have.

Singh was admitted to the medical school despite lower than standard scores on the Medical College Admission Test, and was allowed to enroll in a special program in which students spread out their initial courses over a longer time frame than normal. Despite a prior good academic record, she did poorly at GW and was regularly at risk of being asked to leave. The court record cites evidence that she was repeatedly advised to focus more on her academic work and to cut back on an active extracurricular life (taking a music class, serving on student government committees, and serving as the student government's social chair).

Only after a committee recommended her dismissal (but just before a decision was made by the medical school administration) did Singh seek an evaluation of a possible disability, and she was diagnosed with dyslexia and a "mild processing speed disorder." The university shortly after that dismissed Singh, and officials said that they did not consider the disability diagnosis in their decision.

In the appeal, lawyers for Singh (who could not be reached for comment) argued that the district court had been too quick to dismiss evidence of disability, and specifically to rely on Singh's past academic success as evidence of her ability to do well. The brief said that Singh had a particular problem with multiple-choice questions, and that she had managed to avoid being evaluated on their basis before med school. Singh "attained her achievements by avoiding the very activities in which she was limited," the brief said.

Further, the brief said that the university and the college associations were arguing for "broad deference" in ADA cases, which Singh's backers argued was inappropriate. "[D]eference is inappropriate because it would effectively immunize academic institutions from liability for their violations of the ADA by granting deference to the very decisions suspected of being discriminatory," the brief said.

Friday's ruling, however, said that the district court had ample evidence to reject Singh's claims. The ruling noted that the district court judge cited a range of possibilities -- including Singh's study habits, extracurricular activities, and statements that she had experienced stress after the 9/11 attacks -- to say that she had failed to demonstrate conclusively that her academic difficulties were related to a disability. For this reason, the appeals court said, the district court had made a reasonable decision.

A statement from GW said that the university "is pleased with the court's unanimous decision. The court's analysis provides important guidance not only for GW but also for other colleges and universities which may face similar situations."

Concerns About Learning Disability Claims

A brief filed by the American Council on Education, the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Graduate Management Admission Council (plus several colleges in the District of Columbia) said it was important for courts to consider flaws in diagnoses of learning disabilities. "In most cases, it is far more difficult to confirm the existence of mental impairments and to evaluate the resulting functional limitations than it is when dealing with physical impairments," the brief said.

While the brief stated that the groups do believe that some students have learning disabilities, it offered much skepticism about the growing number of such diagnoses made on behalf of students. The brief said that "there are no universally agreed-upon standards" for diagnosis, and studies showing that students diagnosed under some systems might not be deemed learning disabled under other models. Further, the brief said that "some individuals 'exaggerate' their symptoms" to be diagnosed and to receive accommodations.

These issues have "important implications," the brief argued. Request for accommodations on standardized tests "could alter ... procedures that produce reliable and comparable test scores," the brief said.

It also raised issues of fairness to all students. "[S]tudents have a legitimate interest in ensuring that supplemental academic services that are not available to all students are provided only when warranted," the brief said.

 

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