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Archive for Sunday, December 8, 1996

KU FACING DISABILITY COMPLAINT

December 8, 1996

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A KU student wants the university to improve services for disabled students -- including herself.

The federal government is investigating allegations Kansas University discriminated against a disabled student by not granting her equal opportunity to earn a college education.

The U.S. Department of Education's office of civil rights in Kansas City, Mo., is reviewing a complaint filed against KU by Mary Drouin, a legally blind student from Lawrence. Drouin claims the university violated federal law by not fully accommodating her disability.

Drouin, a 45-year-old senior in environmental studies with a B grade average, maintains KU denied her reasonable auxiliary academic aids and services. As a result, she said, the university failed to put her on a level academic plateau with other KU students.

"The administrative hierarchy at KU is not committed in the long-term to needs of the disabled," Drouin said. "Their solutions are all Band-Aid ideas. I'm a serious student, and I'm not going to take it."

KU officials would not discuss specifics of Drouin's case, citing a policy designed to maintain student confidentiality.

David Ambler, KU vice chancellor for student affairs, said he couldn't even confirm there was a federal complaint pending against the university. Education department officials verified that a review of the complaint Drouin filed in August was ongoing.

Speaking generally, Ambler said: "KU has been a leader in making accommodations, physically and academically, for people who have some type of disability."

He said it was inappropriate to characterize KU's commitment to the disabled based on one student's experience.

"I think we do a very good job. I also think there is always room for improvement," said Maurice Bryan, director of KU's office of equal opportunity and the university's compliance coordinator for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Challenges

Drouin hasn't always had a limited view of the world.

Under a doctor's care at the age of 38, she was given an injection of a drug that had a devastating side effect. The medication robbed her of normal vision, Drouin said.

"It ate the middle part of my retina. The process was complete in about eight months. There's no correction, because the cells died," Drouin said.

Drouin can read normal sized text with the aid of special magnification equipment, but degeneration in each eye doubles or triples her reading time. Her situation is complicated by spina bifida, which prevents her from sitting upright for long periods.

In 1992, Drouin enrolled at KU to work on a bachelor's degree. She maintained a 3.4 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale through most of her time at KU, but the GPA has declined slightly now that she's in advanced courses.

With 40 hours of transfer credit, Drouin needs 18 hours to complete the degree. She might graduate in late 1997 or early 1998, but her progress has slowed.

"I dropped down to part-time student because ... it became such an overwhelming burden," she said.

Frustration

Drouin said she worked within the system at KU for 3 1/2 years in an attempt to secure an equitable academic environment. Frustrated by what Drouin viewed as a lack of serious cooperation by KU officials, she filed the federal complaint.

She said the KU office assigned the task of advocating for the disabled on campus -- Student Assistance Center -- didn't adequately respond to her needs.

In the complaint, Drouin alleged auxiliary aids that she proposed were ignored by the center in favor of "cheaper" aids that "have been proven to be ineffective."

She said academic equipment necessary for her to take a class wasn't always in place at the start of a semester. For example, her plea for software to enlarge text in a computer science class went unmet. She submitted the request eight months in advance.

In that instance, Drouin said, a center staff member imposed two unacceptable alternatives.

"I was told to use a hand magnifier," Drouin said. "When that didn't work, (he) sent a volunteer to the lab with me to verbally direct me on the screen. I would press the keys and use the mouse. I just couldn't see anything I was doing."

After three weeks, while failing the course, she withdrew.

Drouin alleged in her federal complaint that KU wouldn't provide her with adequate class notes. Student volunteers with the center skipped classes and took sloppy notes, she said.

The center declined to provide Drouin with transcripts of taped lectures because she was visually impaired instead of hearing impaired, Drouin said. Tape recordings of textbooks arrived months after the date of class assignments, she said. Drouin was told to use a three-year-old textbook, while other students would have updated editions.

In addition, Drouin alleged in the complaint that KU didn't properly complete a federally mandated "self-evaluation plan" of policies regarding disabled students. The deadline was January 1993, but versions of KU's plan circulated this year have been labeled as a draft.

Bryan said KU missed the original deadline but was now in compliance. The document is periodically revised and is a work in progress, he said.

Arbitration

Federal law placed jurisdiction over Drouin's complaint with the education department's office of civil rights. Jan Chapin, an equal opportunity specialist in Kansas City, Mo., is handling the case. She declined to discuss merits of Drouin's complaint.

Chapin said the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited recipients of federal funding from discriminating against qualified, disabled individuals. KU receives millions of dollars annually from U.S. government sources.

The education department's civil rights staff also examines policies and practices at colleges and universities related to the ADA, signed into law by President George Bush in 1990.

Under federal law, Chapin said, KU is required to provide auxiliary aids, devices or services that result in effective means of communicating course content.

Primary consideration must be given to the preference of the disabled student unless it can be demonstrated an equally effective means of communication is available or unless it can be shown the student's preference causes an undue financial or administrative burden on KU.

Essentially, Drouin said, the government should compel KU to do more to meet her academic needs. Apparently, KU thinks otherwise.

"There is often disagreement on what is 'equally effective' in terms of auxiliary aids," said Bob Mikesic, advocacy coordinator and ADA specialist with Independence Inc. of Lawrence.

Independence Inc. is one of nine centers for independent living serving people with mental and physical disabilities in Kansas.

Mikesic, who also serves on an ADA committee at KU, said involving the education department in the Drouin matter shouldn't be viewed as a negative development.

"It's a way of resolving a problem," he said.

Not alone

The number of students at KU claiming disabilities quadrupled in the past 15 years to about 400. The actual number of disabled is likely greater. Some students choose not to report disabilities to the Student Assistance Center.

The center knows of 149 students with learning disabilities, 87 with attention deficit disorders, 33 with visual impairments and 24 with hearing difficulties. About 30 students at KU have multiple disabilities.

Drouin's case is unusual, because she took her grievance to the federal government. But she is not alone in her criticism of the way KU deals with disabled students, said Erik Peltzman, a San Carlos, Calif., junior in education.

Peltzman has dyslexia, a disability that inhibits a person's reading or writing skills below what would be expected based on their overall level of intelligence.

"I've received good help at KU at times ... and I've received really, really, really poor help at KU," he said.

In a Spanish course, a professor didn't acknowledge Peltzman's documented disability. Consequently, the professor didn't allow Peltzman to take exams orally.

"I'd fail the class if I had to write it down, even though I understood the material," he said.

Peltzman not only dropped that Spanish class, he changed his major to a degree program that didn't require a foreign language. KU eventually refunded his tuition for the Spanish course.

In all, Peltzman said he has dropped seven courses in three years because KU faculty or staff declined to make academic accommodations for his disability.

Wheelchair user Jeri Johnson, a 1987 KU graduate, knows what it's like to face educational obstacles.

Architectural barriers to KU students in wheelchairs are well documented. She's encouraged that $4.1 million in state funds will be spent in the next two years at KU to improve compliance with ADA.

However, Johnson said, it will take great effort to change negative feelings on campus about disabled students. It requires a universitywide attitude adjustment, she said.

"It's not just the Student Assistance Center, but other departments as well do not have sensitivity," said Johnson, an ADA specialist with Independence Inc.

She said the solution was fundamental: KU should teach the teachers to teach disabled students effectively.

"They're dragging their feet. Meanwhile, people are quitting school," Johnson said. "People with disabilities are trying their best to be independent and get an education. It's a crying shame that people pay the same money but don't get the same opportunity."

Scrutinization

Lorna Zimmer has been director of the Student Assistance Center since 1978. In an interview, she expressed pleasure with the center's record of assisting students with disabilities.

"I'm very proud of what we have accomplished," she said.

Contrary to Drouin's claims, Zimmer said the university didn't discriminate against students with disabilities. Zimmer has never encountered a KU staff or faculty member who refused to cooperate with a disabled student.

"We don't run into that," she said.

Drouin said she believes KU should require the center to document all student complaints related to unequal educational opportunity. In addition, she said, students participating in the center's programs ought to be surveyed about the quality of services provided.

Zimmer said she didn't believe it necessary to log complaints. She said the center's staff and $250,000 annual budget was sufficient to do a quality job.

Michael Shuttic, the center's assistant director, said it was impossible to succeed 100 percent of the time when working to assist disabled students. What might be best for one individual might not work for another student, he said.

"The challenge is always identifying what is appropriate and what is available," he said. "Some people's needs are met. Some people's needs can't be met."

Based on a September letter Shuttic sent to Drouin, it appears he believes Drouin could do more to help herself. Shuttic wrote that Drouin wasn't accepting enough of the responsibility for resolving her academic obstacles.

Finding answers

If allowed to submit a wish list to improve the center, Zimmer said it would contain a request for duplicate pieces of technology that assist students.

"Anybody alive and well notices technology develops and changes," she said. "We need to keep abreast with those changes."

Dana Lattin, appointed by Bryan to chair a KU subcommittee on academic services for the disabled, said she was confident the university met federal standards. However, she'd make a few changes at the Student Assistance Center.

In her opinion, the center is understaffed. The center's educational programming for faculty and staff needs to be strengthened, she said.

"In general," Lattin said, "there are a lot of people who don't understand disabilities."

In addition, she said, KU's bureaucracy was so dense it confounded good intentions of people helping the disabled -- even in KU's central administration building.

"Last year, they put new water fountains in Strong Hall," Lattin said. "They put in tall fountains. When it gets down to the person ordering the water fountains, they may not know that water fountains are in the ADA. There are specs."

Ambler, vice chancellor for student affairs, said the biggest obstacle at KU to improving academic life for the disabled wasn't lack of information or effort. The bottom line, he said, was money.

"Resources would be the biggest problem that any institution has," he said. "That includes money to make physical modifications as well as the ... resources that are sometimes needed to accommodate a student in the classroom."

Mikesic, of Independence Inc., said money shouldn't be the determining factor when working through issues related to equal access to education.

"That's something that we're always trying to explain," Mikesic said. "The ADA is about civil and human rights and people should not have those rights withheld because of cost."

Drouin is uncertain how the federal government and KU will resolve her concerns.

"It's not just about me," she said. "I will not benefit from the changes that should come forth, but I will benefit from the knowledge that others may pass on the bridge that I've laid."

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