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Students with disabilities call college admissions scam a 'big slap in the face'

Barbara Feder Ostrov and Ana B. Ibarra, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

For Savannah Trevino-Casias, this week's news about the college admissions cheating scandal was galling, considering how much red tape the Arizona State University senior went through to get disability accommodations when she took the SAT.

"It felt like such a big slap in the face," said Trevino-Casias, 23, who was diagnosed in sixth grade with dyscalculia, a disability that makes it more difficult to learn and do math. "I was pretty disgusted. It just makes it harder for people who actually have a diagnosed learning disability to be believed."

Federal prosecutors have charged 50 people, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, in a nationwide bribery and fraud scheme to admit underperforming students to elite colleges. Some of the parents charged, the FBI said, paid to have their children diagnosed with bogus learning disabilities so they could get special accommodations on the SAT and ACT college entrance exams.

Such accommodations can include giving students extra time on the tests or allowing them to take their exam in a room alone with a proctor to limit distractions. Prosecutors allege ringleaders in the scandal arranged for proctors in on the scam to correct students' answers during or after the exam, or had someone else take the test for them.

Now, families and advocates are worried about a backlash that could make it harder for students with legitimate disabilities to get the accommodations they need to succeed.

"There are already too many hoops and hurdles disabled students must navigate in order to vindicate their civil right to higher education," said Matthew Cortland, a lawyer and disability activist based in Boston. "My fear is that these celebrity fraudsters will incite a crackdown on accommodations. Schools and testing companies will make it even more burdensome for disabled students to get the accommodations that allow them to realize their civil right to access higher education."

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Federal law requires colleges and college testing companies to provide accommodations for students with documented disabilities, including learning disabilities. But in practice, it can be difficult for students -- particularly low-income students -- to get those accommodations. Students diagnosed in grade school may have to provide updated evaluations documenting their need for special accommodations -- testing that can cost thousands of dollars.

Students with legitimate disabilities constantly have to fight the perception that they're gaming the system, said Lindsay Jones, CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

"Many people in our society assume accommodations give you an advantage. They assume, 'I, too, would have done better,' which is a fundamental misunderstanding," Jones said. "But these individuals are already facing skepticism. The college admissions scandal is incredibly damaging to a population that's already fighting to prove that they are amazing and can achieve incredible things."

The FBI did not charge any medical professionals who might have provided a fraudulent diagnosis.

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