Why The College Bribery Scandal Hurts Students With Disabilities "Stories like this are why we continue to see backlash to disability rights laws," one expert said.

Why The College Admissions Scandal Hurts Students With Disabilities

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There's been a lot of coverage of the federal charges filed this week against wealthy parents who allegedly bribed their children's way into elite colleges. One detail that didn't get so much attention - some parents were accused of inappropriately taking advantage of accommodations meant for students with learning disabilities. Students who struggle with learning or attention issues, like dyslexia or ADHD, rely on those accommodations like extra time to take a test. And so, for these kids, the revelations are especially hurtful. Clare Lombardo of the NPR Ed team spoke to some of them.

CLARE LOMBARDO, BYLINE: Isabella Johnson is a premed student at the University of California, Davis. She faces a few different challenges when it comes to learning.

ISABELLA JOHNSON: Dyslexia, dysgraphia, a visual processing disorder and an executive functioning disorder.

LOMBARDO: One big problem is her handwriting.

JOHNSON: (Laughter) It's pretty illegible, and I went to about two years of handwriting school when I was a child.

LOMBARDO: She struggles with reading, too, and some days are worse than others.

JOHNSON: I've had times where I've read something five times, read a sentence five times, and I still don't remember what's written there.

LOMBARDO: Johnson and students like her sometimes get accommodations, support in the classroom or on tests. She gets to take a bit longer on exams because she processes information more slowly while reading. But she's furious over this admission scandal and afraid that it'll only add to the stigma of having a learning or attention issue.

JOHNSON: I've heard people tell to my face, oh, I don't think that ADHD actually exists. I don't think that learning disabilities are actually a thing.

LOMBARDO: But a successful diagnosis and the accommodations that go with it can help students succeed, and many resent the implication that, somehow, they're getting a break.

BETH MCGAW: To get a diagnosis of a learning disability, it's a pretty complicated and rigorous process.

LOMBARDO: That's Beth McGaw, president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America. Her own son has an auditory processing disorder.

MCGAW: If there are things that are not done above board, it's very concerning because it affects all those diagnosed with learning disabilities. And it can add undue hurdles and make it more difficult for them.

LOMBARDO: When Isabella Johnson was applying for college, she took the ACT specifically because she needed access to a computer, and the SAT wouldn't grant her that accommodation.

JOHNSON: I needed to be able to type my essay just to ensure that the people who were proctoring and reading the exam were able to read what I had written down.

LOMBARDO: When she thinks about accommodations for students with learning or attention issues, Johnson thinks about an image she saw while she was in high school in Oakland, Calif. It had three boys on it.

JOHNSON: One who was incredibly short, one who's about medium height and one who is very, very tall.

LOMBARDO: And the image had two different words - equality and justice.

JOHNSON: Equality meant that every single boy was given a box to stand on so that they could see over the crowd. But justice means giving the shortest boy two boxes and the middle one one and the tall one none so that each one can stand on equal footing.

LOMBARDO: Johnson says students like her aren't asking for anything extra.

JOHNSON: We're not the tall boy standing on a box. We're the short one that needs two boxes instead of one to make sure that we have the same opportunities as everybody else.

LOMBARDO: Claire Lombardo, NPR News.


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