I cannot imagine being told, 3/4s of the way into my first academic term, that my mere presence in the classroom “resulted 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:
“At 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.
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.
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