In the first paragraph of the affidavit explaining the college fraud scandal that broke Tuesday, one sentence in particular stood out to me. Of the 33 parents, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, who were accused of engaging in elaborate bribery schemes to get their kids into elite schools, several of the parents allegedly “extended time for their children on college entrance exams ... including by having the children purport to have learning disabilities in order to obtain the [necessary] medical documentation.”
As someone who is disabled, my blood boiled. I thought about all of the shame and embarrassment I had felt for needing, and sometimes using, accommodations for the ESPA, GEPA, ACT, LSAT, and bar exam. While I am no longer ashamed about needing accommodations, I do feel deep contempt for the people abusing these accommodations so they can succeed in a system that is built for them.
Right around my 11th birthday, I had my first “grand mal” seizure. These are the types of seizures that people imagine from the movies where you are on the floor, having full body spasms. These experiences were not scary for me, as I was unconscious, but they were disruptive of my life and my academic experience.
In addition to getting my first stick of deodorant that year, I also got a diagnosis of epilepsy. I spent the next couple of years trying almost every medicine on the chart of anti-epileptic drugs in my neurologist’s office. Between the doctor’s appointments and the seizures, I missed a fair amount of school.
I also developed a tremor, likely a side effect from one of the medications, that made it hard for me to take timed standardized tests that required handwriting. We spoke to my doctor, who recommended requesting accommodation for my next standardized test. When I took the ESPA, or Elementary School Proficiency Assessment, that year, I was separated from my classmates and brought to the room with the students in special education who had no time limit to take the exam.
I remember looking at my peers in the room and feeling embarrassed I had needed accommodations the same way students with serious developmental issues did. It made me wonder if people thought my abilities were impaired in some way.
I didn’t understand then that accommodation is not a judgment of your intelligence — it was a way of providing access so that I could accurately perform on the test the same way my peers without a disability could. I didn’t understand that activists have fought over the course of centuries for me to have that right. Instead, my embarrassment was so great that the next year I stopped using the accommodation, saying that I was fine and just did the best that I could on the standardized test with my tremor.
Almost a decade later, during my first-year constitutional law exam at law school, I had a grand mal seizure. After that, student services asked me if I wanted to use accommodations during exams. When I resisted, they noted that accommodations can be challenging to get for the bar exam without prior documentation. But I was so afraid of being separated out from my classmates again that I refused.
When it finally did come time to study for the bar, my biggest concern was having a seizure. I devoted myself to working out ways to regulate my breath during the test, developing a system where I would take a meditative break after half an hour of answering questions. This meant I had to plan to work faster than people who would have access to the full amount of time allocated. When I eventually passed the bar exam, I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders, most of it coming from never having to spend an enormous amount of energy regulating my disability during standardized tests ever again.
The Americans with Disabilities Act ensures that individuals with disabilities have the opportunity to fairly compete for and pursue opportunities including college, graduate school, and trade professions that require licensing exams. It does this by requiring testing entities that offer the exams to do so in a manner accessible to persons with disabilities. The goal, according to the federal Justice Department’s technical assistance requirements, is to ensure that people with disabilities “can demonstrate their true aptitude.”
There is still so much work to be done to ensure people with disabilities have access to both individualized education plans in grade school and educational opportunities after high school. This is due to the complicated web of laws that make knowing your rights challenging, accessing evaluations costly and time-consuming, and enforcing them an uphill battle.
On top of all of the practical challenges is the stigma that far too often accompanies being labeled disabled. Our society’s biases cause people to think that having a disability means that you are less capable, rather than understanding that people are often disabled not by virtue of their medical condition, but by a world not built for them. Now that this cheating scam has captured the public imagination, students with disabilities could face heightened barriers to accommodations and suspicion when requesting them. The suspicion and barriers will impact most acutely those who are also marginalized due to race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, or gender identity.
Through my academic career, I was in the privileged situation of being able to pay for test prep, having time to study for these tests, having access to medical care, being able to afford to take tests multiple times. I had teachers and professors who respected my self-advocacy and didn’t try to deny me access to my education. Yet still, the shame surrounding my condition prevented me from seeking accommodations later in my schooling.
My story is not the story of most people with disabilities. I know many people who have conditions that they can’t manage. And they shouldn’t have to. Accommodations are there to provide access and level the playing field. But people who abuse them create barriers for those of us who really need them.
Aditi Juneja is a lawyer, writer, and activist. She is the co-founder of Resistance Manual and host of the podcast Self Care Sundays. She currently works for Protect Democracy.