Stop discriminating against disabled students. No exceptions.

Thursday, December 3, 2020 - 2:42pm

.

Design by Maggie Wiebe

“No exceptions” punctuates the testing section of Dr. Ron Caldwell’s Econ 101 syllabus. On four separate occasions in the syllabus, “no exceptions” clearly informs disabled and chronically ill students that their experiences won’t be taken into account and that they may face discrimination or infringement of their civil rights. While “no exceptions” — a clear violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act’s reasonable accommodations mandate — may be glossed over by students without disabilities, this ableist rule can be the difference between passing and failing for students with disabilities or chronic illnesses. 

This discriminatory and lazy “no exception” rule must be eliminated across campus if the University of Michigan wants to live up to its mission of serving “the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.” A blanket denial of both legal and moral obligations to provide reasonable accommodations is an archaic violation of this mission and unfit to exist at the University or any academic institution.

For two students I spoke to, Dr. Caldwell’s “no exception” policy and the subsequent support of the policy from the Economics Department and the University, barred them from being able to succeed in their respective situations. A student with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type II who, due to privacy protections, will be referred to as Peter in this article, and Cheyanne Killin, LSA senior and former Services for Students with Disabilities Student Advisory Board chair, were both greatly impeded by this policy. Even when a disabled student does everything right, these “no exception” policies create intense barriers and stresses in order to simply graduate. 

For Peter, Dr. Caldwell’s “no exception” policy resulted in having to take an Econ 101 final under medical duress, as the final exam period overlapped with prep time for a necessary and urgent procedure. Peter submitted the proper documentation at the beginning of the semester, including a Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD), a medical VISA that outlined the accommodations required for SMA2, and followed up with the professor via email, explaining his circumstances. He further invited the professor to read about SMA2 and ask any questions he may have about the condition. Had Dr. Caldwell done further research, or reached out to Peter about his disability, he would have discovered that people with SMA2 must receive injections every four months to prevent further muscular atrophy. 

In a letter to University President Mark Schlissel and the Economics Department, Kathy Homan, president of the Washtenaw Association for Community Advocacy, wrote that “the injection (Peter) receives is called SPINRAZA. It’s a lumbar injection that can and has generated serious side effects for him, the most common side effects of SPINRAZA include lower respiratory infection, fever … vomiting, back pain, and post-lunar puncture syndrome … This is the only medication that has the promise of halting the progression of (Peter)’s Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type II.”

As the semester was coming to a close, Peter discovered that the window to take the Econ 101 final overlapped with the prep time needed for his injection procedure, rescheduled due to COVID-19. Within hours he reached out to Dr. Caldwell, explaining his situation and asking simply that the professor open the exam window earlier so that he could take the exam. Mind you, Peter wasn’t asking for more study time, simply asking he be given an opportunity to take the exam before his procedure. Instead of providing this reasonable accommodation, Dr. Caldwell stated that he hoped Peter would “understand that providing alternatives that, as per the syllabus, are not available to the rest of the class is a bit unfair to the other students.” 

He presented Peter with the option of taking the final during the prep time of his procedure, under medical duress, or a ranked score. Dr. Caldwell outlined the alternative in a June 23 email, saying “Specifically, we rank order all students and find where you fall among the students for the exam that you completed. I.e. say you are 40 out of 112 (this is just an example). Then I take the exam you missed (2nd exam in this case), rank order all students, and give you the score that the 40th individual received.” This arbitrary alternative is unreasonable, as it failed to provide Peter with an opportunity to demonstrate or test his knowledge, which is the entire point of assessments.

“I really felt like I should’ve had the opportunity to show my growth in the course,” Peter expressed. “Letting me take the test just a few hours earlier would’ve made that difference. The window encompassed my procedure so there was nothing I could do about it. It's not like I was asking for anything extraneous, it's not like people were taking it at the same time of day, it was an exam window. I don't understand why I couldn’t have had an earlier exam window.” 

Naturally, after this disappointing and disheartening experience, Peter filed a grade grievance appeal through the Economics Department. As Peter arrived, via Zoom, at the grievance committee hearing, he was shocked to find the panel was solely made up of colleagues of Dr. Caldwell. 

“There was no specialist, the ADA coordinator wasn’t there, no one from OIE (Office of Institutional Equity) was there, no one from SSD was there, no one versed in the ADA was there … the professors were referring to Dr. Caldwell by nicknames, it all felt very out of place,” Peter reflected. 

Cheyanne Killin said that she deeply agrees “that this situation not only exemplifies the rampant ableism present in the University but is one of many examples that expose the need for major departmental and institutional change. Disabled students are viewed here as an afterthought or an additional difficulty, leading to our needs not being met and our needing to surmount intense barriers and stressors, seemingly alone, in order to simply graduate. For a University that overly prides itself on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, disabled and chronically ill students are, most certainly, not receiving those sentiments.”

The appeal committee’s lack of SSD representation, ADA specialist, or medical advocate underscores the systemic problems that exist in the economics department and beyond. 

“The University should make it mandatory,” Homan wrote of the situation. “That a certain ratio of any committee members making decisions related to the disability community and Americans with Disabilities Act have expert knowledge on both …” Ultimately, and surprisingly to Homan, while the committee was not in unanimous agreement, they “sided with the University over (Peter).”

Peter did everything right. He went out of his way to communicate and provide the right documentation to explain his situation to Dr. Caldwell prior to the exam, he enlisted the support of community advocates like Homan to help him following his unfair treatment and went through the department’s procedure that was supposed to remedy these situations. The University failed him at every step. 

While the evidence of one student being crushed by the system should be evidence enough to change it, it is also important to highlight that Peter is not alone. Killin reflected on her past with Dr. Caldwell, saying “I actually failed a course under the same instructor due to an ableist situation.” Just like Peter, the “no exception” rule in Dr. Caldwell’s class prevented her from having the same opportunity for success as her non-disabled peers. Killin was in the middle of having her disability diagnosed when she took Econ 101 in 2017. 

As her illness progressed and she became too ill to attend classes, she was given permission by University Health Service for medical absences; even with this permission Killin still went to her Econ 101 section to turn in her bi-weekly quizzes, required to be turned in in-person under the “no exception” rule. 

“However, as my illness progressed, I stopped being able to go to the classroom to turn in my exams,” Killin noted. “I emailed both Professor Caldwell and my GSI about this and asked if I could scan in the exams to them, even offering to take pictures of myself with the completed exam to assure my identity. Under the ‘no exception’ rule, this was denied, and I received a full zero for the last two quizzes, which caused me to fail the course. I retook (the class) the next semester, under similar medical circumstances, with the only change being an accommodating professor, and got a B+.” 

Situations like this should not exist; disabled and chronically ill students should not have to play academic roulette, wondering whether the professor teaching their course will be accommodating or lean on discriminatory “no exception” rules like Dr. Caldwell. The University can and must remedy these infringements on civil rights if it wishes to live up to its mission statement and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion goals.

When The Daily reached out to Dr. Caldwell via multiple emails for a response on the use of his stringent “no exception” policy and its relationship to ADA non-compliance, he did not respond.  

How can the University remedy these situations? First and foremost, the University, and in this instance Dr. Caldwell, must redress Peter and Cheyanne’s situations; they should both be given public apologies and the opportunity to accept a grade grievance or a retake for any assessments affected by this discriminatory “no exception” policy. 

Secondly, the University must undergo a larger review of its policies that impact the equity and inclusion of disabled and chronically ill students; it is a stain on the University that such discriminatory and lazy policies continue to exist in any capacity at this University. As Homan recommends, “the review committee must include staff and students who have first-hand knowledge of living with a disability.” Finally, the University must work to be proactive on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion; constantly playing catch up is both dangerous and antithetical to the school’s catchphrase of “leaders and the best.”

‘‘The issue in these situations is not disabled students’ intellect, communication skills, or understanding,” wrote Killin. “We are brilliant and resourceful. It is, rather, that we start from a different vantage point and need accommodations in order to access the same spaces as able-bodied/neurotypical students do ... I'd love to see an able-bodied professor try to undergo major surgeries, procedures, rounds of infusions and/or treatments, manage a medication schedule, manage dozens of doctor's appointments, all while feeling constantly unwell and in pain, and still have to write their lesson plans, grade papers, and grade exams — because that is exactly what disabled students must juggle every day.” 

It is beyond time to act on these cases that have clearly seen the light of day in grade grievance committees but never resulted in discriminatory policies being changed. The University must make good on your promises of diversity, equity and inclusion, make good on your basic moral and legal obligation to provide equal opportunities for education, follow the ADA and other civil rights laws and most importantly listen to your students with disabilities and chronic illnesses, you owe it to them.

Andrew Gerace can be reached at agerace@umich.edu


The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.