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DISABILITY RIGHTS, ENTITLEMENT, HIGHER EDUCATION, AND CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING

May 2, 2011

Neither Left nor Right but Catholic

DISABILITY RIGHTS, ENTITLEMENT, HIGHER EDUCATION,

AND CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING

By Stephen M. Krason

   The disability rights movement, although less visible than some other civil rights advocacy efforts of recent decades, has been strikingly successful. Such major federal laws as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975, and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) testify to their potency and to how they rode the crest of the post-1950s spirit of civil rights and the push for equality that was its rallying cry.

   American advocacy groups have a long history of taking absolutist, uncompromising positions. The disability rights movement fits this mold, and was further prodded along by the egalitarian mind-set of the 1960s and 1970s and by the leftist politics that many of its early leaders identified with. As a result, we have seen such things as “mainstreaming” of public school students with serious behavioral problems who disrupt classrooms, the closing of state asylums because they denied the mentally ill their “right” to independent living (so the problem of homelessness developed), and public and private institutions forced to spend vast sums on often little-used wheelchair ramps and special elevators.

   Philip K. Howard has pointed out how disability rights absolutism has meant that both common sense and the well-being of the majority are sacrificed for the wants—not really the needs—of a few. New York City provides a couple of examples, although it is hardly confined to there. The transit system had to cutback service because the ADA allowed it to purchase only buses with expensive wheelchair lifts. Its Board of Education has been devoting a quarter of its budget for the 10% of its students who are in special education. Mainstreaming continues apace, even though it insures a failure rate for special education students 50% higher than when they are in separate classes.

   The ADA is a perfect example of addressing problems by the imposition of unbending bureaucratic rules that Howard so decries. It leaves little room for the accommodation of other needs and concerns in the community. The hard-nosed mandates of law—even without the further influence of absolutist-oriented interest groups—is used to address a matter that cries out instead for compromise, charity, and mutual respect.

   In higher education, which I am most familiar with, the ADA has contributed to the ongoing evisceration of academic standards. When Congress—responding to the demands of the disability rights movement and not wanting to appear heartless and against equal opportunity—passed the ADA, it apparently had little sense of what its effect would be on higher education. Most students seeking “reasonable accommodations” nowadays—which the ADA mandates colleges and universities make if they or their students receive federal funding or assistance (which almost all do)—are not blind or wheelchair-bound; they are learning disabled (LD) students. Some have cognitive or behavioral-related problems that make seriously questionable their ability to do college-level work. To satisfy ADA demands, institutions—even small ones with limited financial resources—have had to hire special staff and set up disability service offices. In an age of “helicopter parents” who won’t let their children grow up, parents of LD students are especially prone to interfere. Driven by an ethic that “their kids must succeed,” some use the law as a club to pressure the schools. They are accustomed to the mandates imposed on public pre-college schools to set up individualized educational arrangements for their children, and even though higher education is under no such obligation they still seek it. Some disability office staff members are quick to satisfy them, even if it means undercutting faculty prerogatives and ignoring academic standards. They fashion themselves as advocates for the students, and have bought into the disability-rights mind-set. Some institutions even quietly waive academic requirements for them, such as foreign language courses, that their learning disabilities make too difficult to master. Even though the court decisions are clear that the ADA does not require this, it is the path of least resistance. In effect, they become a privileged group of students, able to graduate without meeting certain degree requirements.

   It is not a unique experience in the area of discrimination law that the end product is actually a special favoring of the group that is supposedly being protected. Witness the odyssey of how the attempt to end racial discrimination transformed into affirmative action and special preferences. The ideology of disability-rights and the laws it spawned has helped create an entitlement mentality.

   The entitlement mentality generated by the disability rights movement contrasts with what the Church has said about people with disabilities. While no major document specifically addresses disabled students, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens (1981) says that the disabled “should be helped to participate in the life of society in all its aspects and at the levels accessible to their capacities.” It calls for training and other opportunities so “that disabled people may be offered work according to their capabilities (#22). A sense of humility is thus required that is noticeably absent in the disability rights movement and in those parents who cannot accept that their LD children just may not be “college material.” Instead of accepting limitations and working with them to the best end possible, as the encyclical suggests, they aim for equal results and want to bend academic standards and integrity to get it. I am not unaware of or unsympathetic to the problems of LD students and their families. One of my daughters has learning disabilities in addition to a related chronic health condition. Neither she nor my wife and I have ever sought special treatment or accommodations for her. We understood that higher levels of academic learning were not where her abilities lie and went from there.

   For those LD students who are college material (except for those who have mild disabilities), special programs and schools, of which there are a number in the U.S., should be turned to. That, however, goes too much against the grain of entitlement, extreme equality, and obsession with mainstreaming of the disability rights mind-set. It also requires a sense of humility, acceptance of limitations, and awareness that one is no less valuable as a person if he does not have the same open door to certain kinds of worldly success as others. These attitudes, encouraged by the Church, are not de rigueur for our times.

Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Co-Founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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