University Kicks Student With Down Syndrome Out Of Classroom; Other Students Protest And Are Ignored

I cannot imagine being told, 3/4s of the way into my first academic term, that my mere presence in the classroom β€œresulted in a disruption of curriculum delivery and interfered with the teaching and learning environment for the instructor and other students.” Especially with no prior warning, and especially when all 19 of my fellow classmates insisted that this was untrue.

Meet Eliza Schaaf, a 20 year old university student with Down Syndrome. In September she began taking a ceramics class at Souther Oregon University, with the support of her family. She was signed up as a full student, and registered with her university’s disability office. (Part way through the year she was required to be re-registered as auditing rather than a full student.) According to the blog the Schaaf family has set up:

Out of curiosity went to the SOU Disability Resources Office and made appointment to learn what accommodations are available to student with disabilities. None seemed relevant or needed. Did discuss the personal assistant option.

From what I’ve been able to gather from various news reports, Eliza’s mother, Deb Evans, was her personal assistant in the classroom, having signed a contract. This newspaper report at the Mail Tribune points out that the one-size-fits-all model of providing accessibility accommodations didn’t really work in this situation: personal assistants in the classroom were presumed to be for people with physical disabilities, so Deb was limited to setting up Eliza’s workspace for her. In the timeline of events, the Schaff family acknowledges that Deb was asked to not speak to Eliza or the other students during class time, and describes Deb as leaving the room and letting Eliza get any assistance she needed from another student who also signed a personal assistant contract.

Without any warning whatsoever, Eliza received a registered letter from the university informing her:

β€œAt this time, Southern Oregon University does not offer a program specifically designed to provide specialized learning opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities. We have determined that even with the support of the accommodation(s) available at the post-secondary level, you are currently not otherwise qualified to meet the academic standards necessary to participate in this course.”

And, you know, I get that. I think it’s shitty, but I can understand that. Except for one minor problem:

Eliza didn’t develop Down Syndrome spontaneously half-way through October. She had Down Syndrome when the university agreed to accept her as a student, and when the Disability Accommodations Office agreed they really had no assistance they could offer her, and when the university agreed that her mother could be Eliza’s personal assistant, and when they told Deb Evans that she could sit in another room during the class.

The other problem is this: According to the letter Eliza received from university administration (You can read it here (PDF) transcription.):

Based upon our interactive process and classroom observation, we have conluded that there are no appropriate accommodations that would allow you to engage with the course material at the cognitive level necessary and required of university-level students. Specifically, we have made the following observations during your participation in the course….

Except, according to students actually in the class, no one observed. According to Mollie Mustoe, a student in Eliza’s class and one of the people behind the very vocal outcry about this situation::

She said what bothered her most was that the administration used students in the class as a reason to withdraw Schaaf without consulting those students.

“No one from the administration observed the class, and the administration never had a dialogue with the students about what we felt,” she said.


“She worked almost as independently as me,” Mustoe said. “What she couldn’t do on her own that’s what the personal assistant was for.”

The situation seems to be done and dusted. Despite a petition from all 19 of Eliza’s classmates, the people this decision was allegedly made in support of, despite the Student Senate at Southern Oregon University voting to support Eliza, despite 40 students signing a separate petition in support of Eliza, despite a protest, media attention, and multiple letters from around the world in support of Eliza, the university has decided to reaffirm their decision to force-quit Eliza from the classroom. She won’t even be allowed to come in for the final class. She will be allowed to get a critique from her university professor, though; the person who, it seems, is the one who has made all the complaints about her.

There are more than likely people reading this right now going “But a kid with Down Syndrome doesn’t belong in a university classroom.” Frankly, I’m not going to debate that with you. I’m not on the admissions team of a university. Unless you’re from SOU, you’re also not on the admissions team that has anything to do with the decision to accept Eliza. But Eliza was accepted by the university as a student. Any other student would be allowed to complete the course, even if they were disruptive, even if they were failing, even if they only attended three courses out of 12.

Frankly, this is shitty behaviour, and I am outraged both on behalf of Eliza, who deserved far better treatment than this, and on behalf of the students in her class who were used as an excuse and a shield by the university who then promptly ignored everything the students said in response.

Further Reading:
Disability Scoop: University Decision To Withdraw Student With Down Syndrome Sparks Outcry
Mail Tribune: SOU students protest rejection of woman with Down syndrome
The Arc: “I am not a disability”: Eliza’s Story
Mail Tribune: SOU dean reaffirms decision to drop art student with Down syndrome

Eliza’s University Experience

7 Comments

  1. This is thoroughly appalling. Poor woman.

  2. I clicked on the Arc link which led to a link to Eliza’s blog, with photos of her work. Her art is really beautiful. To me it looks like university level work. I do not understand this.

  3. This whole thing sucks, but of course the “I have never thought of myself as being disabled” quote pops up. It really pisses me off that disability is so stigmatized that such quotes pop up almost every time a disabled person comes under fire. I’m not mad at Eliza personally since this is just the first time I’ve felt like speaking up about something I’ve seen before and the stigmatization of disability is the real issue.

  4. Quijotesca, yeah, the stigma against being disabled is really strong. It comes up so often I think because “disabled” to people still seems to be “completely incapable of doing anything, the worst thing ever, and an object of pity and derision.” The people I personally know who will say “I’m disabled” tend to be people who are in to disability rights, and thus take it on as a political identity. (Of course, the people I know who have a disability tend to be mostly disability rights people.)

    I also find that when the media wants to make someone all Look! Look! It’s a disabled person!” they really want to emphasize the “I’m not disabled, I’m awesome!” storyline without looking at it very closely. So you have the story that s.e. linked last month that was the woman who said “My parents never told me I was blind”, and the article made that of central importance to the story, rather than “a blind woman who is an entrepreneur just made a trip round the world while doing 18 different awesome things.” Eliza no doubt said some version of “I’m not disabled, I’m awesome”, trying to fight against the idea that she was too disabled to finish the class, but the article focused on that because it makes a better story for the non-disabled public.

    … not that I have opinions or anything.

  5. Yeah, I’m sure it’s more complicated than I said, given that there’s an article called “I Am Not a Disability” written by a group that’s supposed to help disabled people. Um. What? I shouldn’t be surprised since every organization that I’ve been in touch with has either failed or abandoned me. Then there was a case worker who wouldn’t let me say anything “negative” about myself, including pointing out what my disabilities were. It’s still kind of sad they choose to harp on that “Not disabled” thing.

    It’s just that if I didn’t say anything this time, well, I was just going to try to go back to convincing myself that it wasn’t really a “thing” at all. Really, it’s something that warrants a whole blog entry. I might try to write one if I can just quit seething about the fact that yes, it’s really something that happens a lot. :/

  6. Quijotesca you’re not at all wrong for pointing this out. It seems like Eliza’s parents brought her up in a really positive environment but I think for a lot of parents of kids with disabilities, being positive means encouraging this whole “I don’t think of myself as disabled, I want to be treated like everyone else” spiel which really doesn’t make sense. (Also…the school used the fact that Eliza needed accommodations against her. This is exactly why saying “I want to be treated like everyone else” doesn’t work, because then people will be like “oh, well you need all these accommodations, we can’t treat you like everyone else.” The idea that different students should be treated exactly the same as each other, and this is the fair way to do things, is just an extremely popular fallacy. Students, disabled or not, have different needs.)

    This obviously isn’t the most striking thing about the article blog etc.–what happened to her is terrible–but it is worth mentioning.

  7. I have a sister with Down Syndrome, although she is far more intellectually delayed, cannot speak, needs constant supervision, etc. It sounds like someone with some kind of authority or friends with someone with authority just wanted to get rid of Eliza.

    If she violated any rules, like allegedly touching an exhibit during a museum tour, then that’s a simple student conduct code report. Usually that would just result in a warning. You have to do something far worse to get kicked out of a class.

    I’m actually kind of appalled the ARC didn’t file a Section 504 suit on her behalf.

    We give the ARC donations for lots of things, but legal advocacy I think should be one of them. Don’t leave it to her parents.