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Column: The ugliest part of the admissions scandal

  • William "Rick" Singer, front, founder of the Edge College & Career Network, exits federal court in Boston on Tuesday, March 12, 2019, after he pleaded guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)



For The Washington Post
Thursday, March 14, 2019

The experiences of 57 million Americans with disabilities are not just costumes to wear to get preboarding access to a plane or extended time on a test. Accessing those rights could become a lot harder now, thanks to well-heeled parents who are charged in a scheme to abuse disability accommodations to fake their children’s scores on college admissions exams. The ugliness of this alleged scam is even more apparent when we consider how expensive it is to have a real disability.

The criminal complaint filed Tuesday alleges that college admissions adviser William Singer coached families to have their children fake disabilities, making them eligible to take tests at facilities where bribed proctors would either correct the students’ tests or take the exams for them. When the students met with the doctors who would need to approve their accommodations, “The goal is to be slow, to be not as bright,” Singer advised in a wiretapped phone call.

If it occurred as authorities say it did, this scheme was particularly ugly because of the way it co-opted the rights of disabled students who have fought for equal access to education for decades. In most other circumstances, disability is stigmatized. But the parents named in the indictment are accused of quite literally paying for such a label, though in some cases they apparently sought to conceal the scheme from their children.

Singer and his clients allegedly attempted to exploit the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This law provides access to accommodations that give students who have disabilities the chance to pursue a regular course of study with their peers.

Extended time for test-taking is neither a perk nor a luxury. Instead, students who truly need this arrangement could use it to have test questions read aloud, use a sign language interpreter, or have a test be fed into specialized software and delivered on a computer.

And for students whose parents don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy these accommodations in the alleged scheme, permission to take exams under these conditions is not simply handed out like a hall pass; students are required to provide documentation of the need for these services. A diagnosis must fit the IDEA definition of a condition that “may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations” to be eligible. The actions described in the indictment make a mockery of a law intended to give students with actual disabilities a seat at the table.

This most recent outbreak of affluenza is particularly disturbing, given the high cost of actually being disabled. Though schools may pay for initial testing, further examinations may require outside experts, which obviously costs money. For low-income families, families in rural communities or families who have disabilities, such measures can be prohibitive. Costs like these, along with discrimination in hiring and access to education, can drive people with disabilities to the socioeconomic margins.

Going forward, students with disabilities may not want to disclose their conditions for fear of being stigmatized as fakers or takers. The level of doubt could easily result in more stringent requirements in terms of assessments and documentation, further driving up costs. In a time when states such as Florida are requiring students with mental health disabilities to register with their districts, the right to privacy of one’s disability diagnosis could be thrown out the window.

This is not an exaggeration, given attacks on the disability community that are already underway. The House of Representatives passed HR 620, which would gut a provision in the 30-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act that provides access to public accommodations, giving businesses nearly infinite time to remedy barriers to accessibility. What’s more, disability rights have been weaponized to disenfranchise communities, leading to the closure of polling places in Georgia and on Native American reservations that were deemed insufficiently accessible, despite the fact that closing those polling stations may have made it harder, rather than easier, for disabled voters of color to cast their ballots. The college admissions scandal may be all the excuse that some lawmakers need to crack down on access to accommodations in all areas of public life.

The legacy of this scandal could be positive changes to make the college admissions process easier and more streamlined for all students. Access to reasonable accommodations is one way to help even the playing field. But I fear that the result could just be another attack on the rights of a marginalized community that is as much a victim of this fraud as the colleges that were duped.

Rebecca Cokley is the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress.