University mishandled multiple disability accommodations, students allege
‘It felt like I was being dismissed’
After three years, three procedures, two coronavirus infections, two hospitalizations, five emergency room visits and over 20 doctor appointments, Madelaine Reis said nobody in the American University administration ever cared to ask if she was okay.
Reis is only one of a group of AU students who have raised concerns with AU’s Academic Support and Access Center. The center has allegedly denied many student accommodations even after what students and advocates believe is an unnecessary, lengthy and invasive application process.
According to groups like College Consensus, AU ranks 8th in the U.S. for students with learning disabilities. Reis, like many others, came to AU because she was told she would be well-accommodated. She feels misled.
At AU, Reis said she feels traumatized and scared every day.
“I just want to finish my degree,” Reis said. “I want to finish my degree in a way that is not going to destroy both my mental and physical health.”
Reis began her graduate studies at AU in 2018, two months after having major surgery. ASAC asked Reis to provide what she believes was an invasive amount of medical information through a complicated application process. Because her graduate program consisted of few classes, the professors were understanding of the accommodations she needed.
In 2019, Reis was invited to lead a Disability 101 workshop for the University’s “Disability, Access, and Teaching Day Symposium.” Her lecture offered a framework for higher education institutions to train their teachers for better interactions and relationships with disabled students. Her efforts helped bring automatic doors to the Hall of Science building.
Reis’ health began to worsen during the pandemic. She had to be on heavy medications, which negatively affected her heart. She contracted COVID-19 twice during this time, making her recovery longer and more painful.
With no available treatment, Reis remembers being scared every day. She was under the impression that classes marked “Incomplete” on her transcript would remain until she could finish the classwork.
But in June 2021, Reis received an email notifying her she was being placed on academic probation. The University Registrar can place students on Academic Probation when their cumulative GPA falls below 3.00 after attempting and receiving credit in at least 9 credit hours of coursework or when students fail to receive credit in at least two-thirds of the courses they attempt, according to the University’s Graduate Academic Regulations.
In October of that year, Reis hired Gabriela Diller as her collegiate disability advocate to help her navigate the process. Diller is the founder of Lotus Advocacy, which provides special education consulting for schools and advocacy for students and families. She had been working in similar roles for 15 years.
“Given that Maddy had serious medical procedures and COVID, she could not complete her work during that time,” Diller said. “I reached out to the ASAC to understand the steps Maddy needed to take. They denied speaking with me.”
In response to the allegations, University spokesperson Elizabeth Deal told The Eagle in an email that ASAC had seen an increase in the number of students it supported in the 2020-2021 year.
“ASAC supported more than 1,300 undergraduate, graduate, and law students with disabilities. This represents more than a 25% increase in the number of students supported since the 2017-2018 academic year,” Deal wrote. “The ASAC team actively engages with students who experience any challenges with accommodations and work with them and partners across the university to find solutions. Students always receive responses to inquiries in a timely manner.”
Since October, Diller has been trying to get approval from ASAC to be Reis’ advocate.
“We have not been able to actually solve the problems, because they will not let me get any information to help her,” Diller said.
Diller has worked with over 30 college campuses, including the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Boston, and has never been denied the ability to be a student’s advocate, she said.
“Arduous,” “invasive” and “onerous”
ASAC provides a range of accommodations, such as supplemental instruction and tutoring for students with learning disabilities and assistive learning technology for students with visual or hearing impairments. As stated on its website, the center is meant to “support the academic development and educational goals of all American University students and is committed to promoting access for individuals with disabilities within the university’s diverse community.”
To receive accommodations, ASAC requires students to provide “comprehensive and relevant documentation that explains the impact of their disability and makes a recommendation for accommodation.”
But Diller described ASAC’s accommodation application as “extremely arduous.”
“You end up filling out over 25 pages of the form. I am a neurotypical person, and I don't have a learning disability. So imagine being a student with a learning disability coming to this website,” Diller said. “It is incredibly confusing to navigate and requires an inordinate amount of paperwork that no other college campus asks for.”
Reis’ primary care doctor, Dr. Edward S. Goldberg, pointed out how invasive the ASAC forms are in comparison to most other documentation he has filled out on the subject.
“I’ve been practicing primary care medicine since 1993. I have completed innumerable forms for a variety of circumstances pertaining to disability issues ranging from lifetime benefits to various types of accommodations for educational purposes,” Goldberg said. “In comparison to what I usually encounter, the paperwork I was asked to complete in this circumstance was unnecessarily onerous and not largely relevant to the specific situation.”
ASAC’s policy also excludes students who have an undiagnosed or invisible disability, students said.
An AU student who wishes to remain anonymous recalled their experience of attempting to receive the accommodations they needed.
“ASAC requires documentation from a specialist or the doctor that diagnosed you. I was diagnosed several years ago in a different state where my family does not even live anymore, and there are no specialists for my condition,” they said. “I was not able to get any accommodations.”
However, ASAC states on their website that “students may enter the university without identifying their disability.”
Without the accommodations, this student, like many others, said they must rely on their individual professors’ willingness to abide by their accommodations request. In some cases, professors are supportive, but in others, they show no understanding.
The Disabled Student Union is compiling a list of professors based on their treatment of accommodations and disabilities, said Katherine Greenstein, president of DSU. Students can request access to the list from DSU.
Applying and receiving accommodations at Reis’ undergraduate institution, the University of Central Florida, was much more straightforward, she said.
“I had my patient portal where I could just click a button, and they would send my professors all the accommodations I needed,” Reis said. “But now, I have to bring a letter and sit down with my professors individually to discuss them. And that is if they accept all my accommodations – sometimes, teachers interpret them differently and to their own will.”
Second-year graduate student Jessica Chaikof lives with Usher Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder affecting vision and hearing loss, and said most of her accommodations are for her sight and hearing. After a series of technical glitches with her remote Communication Access Realtime Translation, Chaikof requested an in-person CART reporter to help her communicate more effectively in her in-person classes.
After over two months, she has not heard from ASAC and decided to take matters into her own hands and provide an alternative solution.
“I conducted my own research and found a special microphone that could enhance my existing remote CART and be cheaper for ASAC. But what really frustrated me with ASAC was despite all the research and evidence I provided, the response I got was, ‘we need to do our own research,’” Chaikof said. “To me, it felt like I was being dismissed. Nobody knows my disability more than me, and nobody knows the accommodations I need more than I do.”
A reporter from The Washington Post included Chaikof in a November 2021 story about disabled students and the challenges of returning to college campuses. Chaikof said she got a lawyer later that month from the non-profit University Legal Services for D.C. because the University was “making no change or any progress” on providing her accommodations.
Chaikof said her lawyer reached out to ASAC staff members by email in November requesting accommodations under Title III of the ADA. Lindsay Northup-Moore, director of disability support for ASAC, responded to Chaikof alleging that the provided remote captioning services were sufficient and that Chaikof had received all reasonable accommodations that she had been approved for, according to the email.
“While we understand your preference for an in-person [CART] reporter and we have been working diligently all semester to try to find a way to fill that preference, ASAC has provided you with reasonable accommodations for your documented disability,” an ASAC representative said to Chaikof in an email obtained by The Eagle.
Chaikof said the University’s response was lacking, which is why she decided against filing a complaint with the Equity and Title IX office about the more recent discrimination regarding her service dog.
“I became very scared because of the way the school responded; they weren’t empathetic,” Chaikof said. “They weren’t understanding [of] my situation and continue to call my accommodations a ‘preference’ which was really offensive.”
When asked to comment on Chaikof’s request, Deal told The Eagle in an email that increased demand for CART reporting services across higher education and other industries has led to a shortage of in-person reporters.
“When using remote CART, American University typically provides enhanced microphones for students and faculty to use in [the] classroom to ensure sound is captured properly,” Deal wrote. “We also continue to explore additional CART services for in-person reporting and regularly check in with the reporters and the students to ensure access is available.”
Many disabled students said they faced even greater difficulty transitioning to in-person learning after months online.
When requesting a meeting to discuss in-person accommodations, post-baccalaureate pre-medical student Madeline Caballero received no accommodations until one month into the semester.
“The irony is that ASAC is so inaccessible, that when I emailed my disability advisor they asked me to call the office to schedule an official meeting,” said Caballero. “Because of all the back and forth, I did not receive my accommodations, notes for the class, until a month into the semester. Within that time I had to withdraw from my biochemistry class because I was unable to get notes in time for the exam.”
Student backlash in the face of recent University announcements
As the University removed the mask mandate after returning to in-person classes, disabled and immunocompromised students say they feel the most vulnerable and at risk.
Greenstein contacted ASAC for online modality options for their in-person classes this semester.
In an email obtained by The Eagle, an ASAC faculty member told Greenstein that they had to go through the accommodations request process, which includes submitting a supplemental student accommodations questionnaire and supporting documentation.
“If the classes you are enrolled in are all in-person, there would not be an already [embedded] way to remotely access them,” the email said.
Greenstein said ASAC followed up with the request form, but Greenstein didn’t end up filling it out because there is still no name for their condition.
“I knew they weren’t going to hear me out and that no one would listen on the front of any of my conditions qualifying me as high risk … so I knew that because I was undiagnosed for whatever is this problem that we don’t have a name for, I was being shut down and told no,” they said.
After AU announced increased tuition in the coming years, Diller criticized the University’s actions.
“Shockingly, they are trying to squeeze the student body for every last dime while pushing out students with disabilities who just need access to resources,” Diller said.
Greenstein said that AU’s ranking on sites like College Consensus could be deceitful to prospective students.
“When looking at these lists, and determining how these schools are ranked, the only people these sites have spoken to is ASAC,” Greenstein said “It does not include any student or alumni testimonies. They are simply evaluating ASAC based off of what the ASAC’s spokesperson says which is obviously very biased.”
Ashley Jacobson, a disability rights lawyer, was disappointed to hear the way ASAC was treating Reis and underscored the systemic nature of the issue.
“The vast majority of accommodations are affordable and easy to provide, yet institutions like American University would rather force Ms. Reis and other disabled students to fit into a mold hardened by unnecessary, discriminatory barriers,” Jacobson said.
After more than two years of being ignored by ASAC, pushed away by the dean of students, and dismissed by the Equity and Title IX Office, Reis and Diller said they filed a Discrimination Complaint with the Office for Civil Rights against AU.
“We have been very professional and cordial throughout this entire process,” Diller said. “We are not trying to be combative. We are looking for support. We are looking for solutions. We are looking to ensure Maddy gets access to her legally entitled accommodations. We all just want her to graduate.”
Zoe Bell contributed to the reporting of this story. Correction: Chaikof filed a complaint with the Equity and Title IX office, not the D.C. Commission on Human Rights.