Disabilities: The Inspiration and the Outrage

You can judge a society by how well it cares for its most vulnerable. You can judge an individual’s character by observing how he acts when he thinks no one is watching. The best and worst of both society and the individual are evident when it comes to the topic of disabilities.

First, the Inspirational

Millions of Americans cope with disabilities, whether they be physical, cognitive, or sensory in nature. The impacted include the disabled as well as the families caring for them.

My extended family is no different: I’ve seen loved ones deal with disability, both sensory and cognitive, since I was a kid. Those afflicted turned out to be the most positive and motivated people I’ve ever known. They inspire me to this day, sometimes at unexpected times and situations.

Disabilities take a heavy toll on parents and families who care for the individual. The toll is both financial and physical. In particular, the stress of worrying about who cares for the disabled when the primary caregivers become too old to continue doing so can be so severe that it impacts the health of the caregiver.

Big, tight-knit families or those with enough financial means are better equipped to succession plan for care of loved ones with a disability, albeit it still presents myriad challenges. But smaller families or ones lacking financial resources face massive uncertainty as to who will care for the loved one if something were to happen to the current caregiver. Quite modest assistance can enjoy an outsized positive impact in these situations.

Organizations here in Pittsburgh, like Achieva (www.achieva.info), the United Way, and the Salvation Army, have been providing the disabled and their families crucial assistance for decades. These organizations do amazing work and they could always use more support. Every individual and family they help instantly benefits by having an enormous burden shared, a burden level that you and I likely can’t even begin to contemplate.

Today, the word “hero” gets thrown around too often. But if you want to see true heroes in action in real life, observe a person with a cognitive disability show up to work every day, experience a parent providing continuous care to a child with a physical disability, or find out more about the missions of organizations in your corner of the world dedicated to helping the disabled and their families.

Now, the Outrageous

Unfortunately, there is an ugly side to disability, one that is becoming more common. Disability is being used to gain an edge in the hyper-competitive world of academics. You see it at high schools and colleges across the nation. Disability rate, particularly that for learning disability, is skyrocketing across the education system.

Certainly, there are students who have true learning disabilities and require additional support during their high school or collegiate experience. But most people are surprised to learn that today almost one in four students at select colleges and over two million college students nationwide are considered disabled.

Disability rates have exploded in a few short years and will likely continue to rise. Many of the disabilities relate to mental and learning issues that can be challenging to assess such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit, and stress. Sometimes the more elite the school, the higher the official rate of increase in, and absolute level of, disability.

Indications are a portion of the growing ranks of allegedly learning-disabled students are gaming the system. Statistics and the numbers tell you that. The barriers to getting tagged disabled are low and the benefits gained are many.

Legally all that is needed to be designated disabled is a note from a doctor. Once the student has the note, they are entitled to a range of accommodations: extra time for exams, being allowed to walk around during class, and bringing a comfort animal to a lecture or exam (no joke).

If you are one of those students willing to score a doctor’s letter about a trumped-up disability, you get to enjoy significantly more time for exams along with a host of other advantages. The fact that the student who doesn’t get those perks is disadvantaged in the same class is irrelevant to the bad actor. In some instances, it may be the precise reason for the ruse.

That fabricated disabilities are an insult to students who suffer from legitimate disabilities is meaningless to the university administrator who allows this to occur. In many instances, the university administrator benefits by using the high level of student disability to justify more staff and bigger budgets. Thus, it comes as no surprise that suddenly we may be facing a manufactured epidemic of student disability across American colleges and universities.

The epidemic is rapidly trickling down to high schools. Disability claims are skyrocketing for high school students nationally, especially in wealthier districts and private schools. Students and parents clamoring for the disability designation enjoy added test times and separate testing locations, including for the all-important SAT and ACT standardized college admissions exams. Which students enjoyed the special testing privileges are not disclosed when reporting scores to college admissions offices.

What to Do?

It is impossible to know for certain which students and families game the academic system and claim a false learning disability to gain an edge. That’s the nature of character; it’s often hard to assess from the outside.

What would help is if the medical profession and the academic administrative bureaucracy took a more rigorous approach to screening cases. Creating severe consequences for those caught gaming the system would act as an effective deterrent.

Instead, too much emphasis is placed on the paperwork and bureaucratic process as proper due diligence, serving as convenient cover for the bureaucrats overseeing it all. Falsifying a disability to gain an edge is akin to cheating on an exam, but to a much more morally reprehensible degree.

Part of the professional duty of educators and their institutions is instilling students with a sense of discipline and character. Higher education needs a system for vetting disability claims where the morally upstanding student is rewarded and the despicable looking for the unfair edge is penalized, not vice versa. Intensity and accountability need stepped up on this issue.

Disabilities: The Inspiration and the Outrage