Thanks, But No Thanks

by Jim Marks

From the Editor: Jim Marks has been an officer in the Montana affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind since 1992 and has served as his chapter's Secretary since 1995. Since 1988 he has been the director of disability services for students at the University of Montana-Missoula, and he served two terms as chairman of the Special Interest Group on Blindness of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). For a number of years he has been a columnist on disability issues for mainstream publications. In short, Jim Marks knows the disability scene in higher education. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is interesting to consider what impact the ADA has had on students and the institutions that work with them and sometimes against them in the educational process. This is what Jim has to say:


During the debate before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the National Federation of the Blind took a position that surprised many. The NFB said it would oppose the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act if the bill failed to include a clause which gave protected citizens the right to refuse an accommodation.

At first I wondered what the Federation was up to. Reject an accommodation? Why? But now that the law is ten years older and I'm ten years wiser, the reason for the NFB position stands immutably clear. If we didn't have the right to refuse an accommodation, those with good and bad intentions would rob the blind of our self-determination.

I ought to know. I am the director of a disability service at a public university. The things that take place in higher education exemplify why the NFB was right on in protecting the fundamental human right of saying, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Today's blind student faces a learning experience which differs significantly from that of ten or more years ago. Now disability service offices carry out many of the services formerly provided by commissions for the blind and vocational rehabilitation agencies. Although many colleges have had such offices since the mid-70's, many more have proliferated since the ADA took effect. We are an infant industry that is growing by leaps and bounds.

In 1988 I served about 120 students with an annual budget of $13,000 per year, a figure which included my half-time salary. Now my office serves over 600 students with a budget of $340,000 per year. Where it used to be just me working part time, now there are ten staff, forty student workers, and some eighty volunteers. And my school isn't alone in this kind of growth. According to the American Council on Education the number of students with disabilities in higher education has grown to about 9 percent of any student body. From my observations of other offices it is common for about 2 to 6 percent of a student body to enroll with the disability service office.

Done properly, a disability service stays out of the student's way. Done poorly, the office either kills the student with kindness or with outrageous, power-robbing controls. Believe you me, as a Federationist working deep in the trenches of higher education, it pays for blind students to be wary of the people who hold jobs like mine.

The bulk of my colleagues don't know much about blindness. Most offices gear themselves to serve students with other kinds of disabilities. Blind students make up tiny portions of the students enrolled. Therefore blind students must be prepared to educate their disability services coordinators about blindness. There are no knights in shining armor. Blind students must look to themselves as their best resource in dealing with college.

Over-accommodation trips up more blind students than any other flaw in the disability services. Simply put, over-accommodation means doing for the student what he or she is perfectly capable of doing for him- or herself. For instance, some blind students must unfortunately use human note takers in course lectures. For some students with other kinds of disabilities note taking levels the playing field. But blind students can and do take notes for themselves. The disability service, out of ignorance, applies note takers as a one-size-fits-all solution to a problem that doesn't need to exist for the blind. When the able student accepts the over-accommodation, he or she pays a price. Career success depends on one's ability to manage information. Employers say, "Don't know how to take notes for yourself? Sorry. We're looking for competent employees who can contribute to our organization."

Another example of over-accommodation involves the sandwiching of the disability service between the student and the instructor. Blind students must connect with their professors. If the disability service office intervenes in this relationship, it is over-accommodating.

Many know about the letters of verification that disability service offices write for students and faculty. The letters verify that the student has a disability and a right to accommodation. Sometimes the disability service office gives the letters to the student to give to instructors. Sometimes the office sends them directly to the instructors. In most cases the letter of verification is an option, one that blind students really don't need. The blind student should be able to articulate a personal request for accommodation. But some schools compel students to use these letters. Here's how it works. The disability service office tells the faculty that they should demand a letter from the disability services before any academic adjustments are granted. In this way, the rhetoric goes, the institution is protected best. Control rests with the disability service office, its importance skyrockets, and the empire expands. Meanwhile the student holds on to the letter as though it is the only passport to access. Schools have now created dependencies where none existed before. Thanks to the "Thank you, but no thank you" clause, the cycle of custodialism may be broken by the blind student with spunk.

Another battle--one that surprises many--must be waged over readers. The ADA requires communication within a program to be just as effective for the blind as for others. Oftentimes alternative formats such as Braille, tape cassettes, large print, and computer texts are used to assure communication. But some schools go so far as to say these alternatives are all that's required. Consequently they restrict the use of readers by blind students.

A Midwest university ADA dispute resolution officer recently contacted me for technical assistance regarding a blind student's complaint against a restrictive policy on the use of readers. The policy placed all the controls in the hands of the disability service, not the blind student. The office recruited, hired, and monitored the readers. The policy even required that reading occur on the campus. Incredibly, the policy went so far as to prohibit the reader from reading anything twice. Fail to comply, the policy stated, and the service will be terminated, leaving only alternative formats as an option. The final kicker in this story was that the money for the reader program came from the rehabilitation agency rather than the university. It wasn't even their money; yet the controls choked self-determination by the student.

Once I attended a conference of people who hold jobs like mine. There I participated in a workshop entitled something like this: "Custodians or Traffic Cops: Defining the Role of Disability Service Officers in Higher Education." The workshop organizers wanted to deliver an unsuspecting audience of do-gooders and control freaks a lesson in how to do it right. One presenter said something that stuck with me. He said the best disability services assure a process by which students achieve self-determination. This means the services are optional and put the student in the position of control. Sound familiar? It should, because self-determination rests at the core of Federation philosophy and practice.

Disability service offices are probably here to stay, but how the offices conduct themselves has yet to be written in stone. The Federation's message of taking personal responsibility shapes best practices in disability services in higher education. We must remain vigilant about the seductions of over-accommodation and the dangers of custodialism. Remember that saying "Thanks, but no thanks" is healthy. I, for one, am glad the NFB had the imagination to see what was coming and the good sense to protect our ability to do something about it.