How AU failed a Student with Learning Disabilities
By Joey Krassner
As a writer for TheMove, I read my articles and often wonder whether or not I come off as a whiner. I write to great lengths about AU’s struggles ranging from TDR to 2Fix, however, I never truly write my articles with the expectation that AU’s administration team should cater to all the complaints brought up in my article… but this article is different. Instead of complaining about TDR food and the meal swipe system, I’m going to talk about one person, Olivia Cronin, and her tumultuous journey throughout her time at AU as an international studies major. Her struggle, documented in a Facebook Post, is upsetting, but perfectly encapsulates the hurdles those with disabilities face even at universities claiming to be “progressive.” Her story, along with her first AU media interview is here.
The story begins one year ago, with Olivia getting tested for possible learning disabilities following several failed attempts to pass foreign languages and her discovering that she had both ADHD and an Auditory Processing Disorder. A further psychoeducational evaluation by her doctor determined that made it, “… nearly impossible for her to learn a foreign language,” and that, “… the only way [she] could succeed and graduate from AU is with a foreign language waiver.” With less than a year left to graduate and knowing that she needs the waiver to graduate with an international studies degree, she requested a waiver from ASAC under the impression that receiving the waiver would be easy. After all, she had test results and doctor’s recommendation that prove that she not only had learning disabilities, but that they also hindered her ability to learn a language. But even with all this evidence, the advisor, who was not familiar with AU’s rules and procedures having previously worked at GWU, rejected her request for a language waiver and offered her no accommodations for her disabilities. An unmotivated student might have given up at this point, but Olivia knew her rights and chose to appeal the advisor’s decision. This appeal would bring her to next hurdle, the Associate Director of ASAC.
While many parts of Olivia’s story bothers me, this part probably disturbs me the most. The Associate Director allegedly referred to her disability as a, “’weakness and not disabling’” and challenged her motivation towards graduating from AU. While I don’t have nearly enough time to articulate why a statement like this is incredibly demeaning, it stems from a lack of understanding of what disability is, which is interesting because we’re talking about someone that is head personale of a center that helps kids who are struggling academically. Heading back into her story, it seemed clear to Olivia that obtaining this language waiver would be near impossible, but nevertheless she persisted.
Following this meeting, Olivia emailed the director of CLEAR, following advice from both the ASAC advisor and Associate Director of ASAC that CLEAR worked with students with disabilities. The Director of CLEAR admitted they haven’t worked with or have experience working with students with disabilities. Next came the Director of ASAC, who now admitted that there were no procedures to determine if a student should receive accommodation, but also denied her request for waiver citing that her disability was, guess what, a weakness.
The next part of this story needs context. For those unfamiliar with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, it prohibits discrimination based upon disability in college. If someone files a 504 complaint and wins, the school in which it was filed must properly accommodate the student who filed the complaint. Though Section 504 is mainly used for technological accommodations, it’s sometimes used to appeal for other types of accommodations and in the case of Olivia, she attempted to meet with a 504 Coordinator to discuss the university’s discrimination towards her learning disabilities. The coordinator was out all semester which meant she had to argue her case to the Deputy Provost, who seemed to sympathize with her, but later denied her 504 request claiming that because her doctor hadn’t clarified that learning the foreign language was impossible (term used by the doctor was “nearly impossible”), she should just try again, but by then, time had run out. Graduation was nearing and knowing that she wouldn’t be able to graduate with the degree she wanted, Olivia left AU 8 credits shy of graduation. Just 8 credits.
There are many different ways to interpret her story and I’m sure some readers are skeptical about Olivia’s story, but one thing is for sure: someone who fought the most to finish her education was stopped short by circumstances beyond her control. Even after Olivia learned of her disabilities, she loved AU enough to search the ends of the Earth for a way to stay, but instead of providing her a life line, AU told her to “try harder.” Maybe AU has a fantasized view of disability and believed Olivia could override the adversity of her own learning disabilities and graduate from AU in a storybook ending, but little did AU know that adversity was not from her learning disabilities, but how her disabilities were perceived by those tasked with ensuring her success.
AU robbed her of a storybook ending: Olivia walks down on graduation, cheered on by her fellow global scholars, sorority sisters, family, and friends. She becomes so overwhelmed by the presence of all these people, she has to reassure herself that the moment is real. For a moment, she forgets her learning disabilities. Afterall, the language waiver request was accepted over a year ago ensuring that any fear related to learning a new language would be irrelevant. She has time to focus on the future. More importantly, she has time to prepare herself for the full time job she was offered by her dream company, meaning her lifetime of hard work and dedication were beginning to pay off. Her future was bright and all she had left was to pick up her diploma.
Olivia currently lives back home in Pittsburgh. She is currently taking online classes through Central Michigan University, but because she was forced to transfer, she now has to complete 30 credits instead of the 8 needed to graduate from AU. Thankfully throughout her ordeal, her support group of friends, family, her sorority, professors, and those who already know her story have been incredibly supportive. For someone that has been through hell, I expected to interact with someone with a more negative outlook on life, however, this couldn’t have been further from the case. Though Olivia is has certainly been placed at a disadvantage, she seems to be during the most to ensure that her situation is not the end of her dream. Stuff happens and you need to work around it. I’m sure Olivia has developed a new mentality surrounding her education and how to use her position to her advantage. Olivia, since I know your reading this, I wish you the best of luck. Regardless of the circumstances life gave you, I’m confident you’ll make the absolute most out of it.
To finalize this article, I want to talk about what disability means to me. For those that don’t know me, I have an older brother with autism. For my entire life, I’ve seen how his disability has limited his opportunities in life, from not being able to attend college to difficulties with social interactions, it’s safe to say that by himself, he is not in a position of power. Overtime, I’ve learned about the importance social protections and support groups play in empowering people like my brother. Without these people or protections, people with disabilities like my brother would be forgotten in society, struggling to cope in a cruel reality. Even within my own life, I’ve seen noticeable improvements towards how people with disabilities are perceived and how society has decided to help ensure these people can live a high quality life or at the very least, life with purpose. I wrote my college application essay to AU with this in mind. I talked about how my brother shaped who I am and an ongoing experience living and working with people who have disabilities because I believed this university had a good understanding of what disability was, but in light of Olivia’s situation, I have started questioning AU’s understanding of disability.
AU, for all you’ve done to Olivia, someone who greatly contributed towards your campus, I ask for only one thing on behalf of Olivia. An apology. For not giving her a language waiver despite your own acknowledgement of her disabilities, for calling her disabilities “weaknesses,” for repeatedly telling her to “try harder” and “try again,” and for refusing to understand the severity of her situation. AU, if you truly are the champion of protecting vulnerable populations, the least you can do is try to make things right with a student who slipped through the cracks.
Upon reaching out to ASAC, an AU spokesman sent the following statement to TheMove:
“The Academic Support and Access Center (ASAC) is committed to serving AU students with disabilities through the provision of reasonable accommodations. Our goal is to be true to AU’s commitment to inclusive excellence and to provide equal access for all students with disabilities. Recognizing that every student has unique needs that may change over their time at AU, the ASAC seeks to fully engage with all students requesting accommodations in an individualized, interactive, and continuous process. When accommodation decisions are made, we are transparent with students about those decisions and the reasons behind them. Due to privacy requirements, AU cannot comment on individual student circumstances.”
We also received the following statement from CLEAR:
“Given that CLEAR’s role within the University is to provide support and training, I cannot comment on the process for granting waivers, since that is a matter handled by programs in accordance with their curricular goals. In addition, given that students’ health information is protected, I am not at liberty to discuss any of our patrons’ information with anyone outside the institution.”
Olivia Cronin’s story was first covered by Braeden Waddell at AWOL on October 18, 2019. Check out the article here.