Educator awareness and respect of privacy is vital to protecting rights of students with disabilities

Leah Kashar

In an ideal world, outside of what is visible, a disabled individual can remain as public or as private about his or her disability as they so choose. This is not always the case, especially on college campuses.

Curb cuts for the handicapped, captioning glasses in movie theaters for the deaf, and braille in elevators for the blind are a few of the ways that the disabled are publicly accommodated. Many of these accommodations may go largely unnoticed by the general population. An issue that disabled students face is the ignorance of their professors to the student’s situation and their rights. Despite legislation to protect privacy rights of the disabled, many students’ peers and professors remain uneducated about how to treat disabilities on college campuses.

Approximately 11.1 percent of college students have a legal disability. Note takers, interpreters and preferential seating are often utilized by students to accommodate for disabilities such as hearing loss and learning disabilities. While UT provides its own bill of rights, in addition to existing legal protections, not all students’ experiences are the same in the classroom.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, students are not allowed to be discriminated against for having a disability. The University evaluates the need for accommodations, which are then communicated to professors. Should professors question the need for accommodations, they must take it up with the University instead of the student. Most importantly, accommodations are supposed to remain between the student and professor.

“Students often make requests based on a ‘track record’ of having used certain accommodations in the past successfully in another educational setting,” Lucille Wood, professor at UT Law School, said. “It is important to understand that the student must demonstrate the need to the [Services for Students with Disabilities office].” 

Students with disabilities often fear professors singling them out and exposing their disability. Meagan Moses, a studio art junior, said professors have exposed her accommodations to her classmates before. Whether or not the exposure was intentional, she said that students with a disability should follow up with their professors to ensure their accommodations are issued in an appropriate manner.

“I had a professor who had never dealt with accommodations before,” Moses said. “I needed notes from another student and no other student volunteered, and I was behind on the material for the beginning of the class. Usually, a professor will contact a student directly to be a note taker, but she asked the entire class, and gave the note taker my real email, instead of forwarding me the notes.” 

While students can be proactive and take charge of how their accommodations are handled, they can only do so much. Professors need to take responsibility to ensure that their students receive the accommodations to which a student is entitled. 

“What could be improved would probably be faculty education about their role in accommodating students,” said Lauren Kinast, associate director at the UT Services for Students with Disabilities office. “We offer Disability Advocate Program (DAP) trainings and workshops about disabilities to all campus constituencies and would like to see more faculty attend.”

At UT, discrimination is usually not the issue. Often professors do not understand the implications that come with having a disability, including the need to protect the student’s privacy and comfort in the classroom. While some accommodations cannot be hidden, students with non-visible disabilities may not want to be exposed to their classmates. While UT as a whole may be an accepting and understanding community, and disabled students have nothing to be ashamed of, they are entitled by law to their privacy. 

A lack of education is harmful to students. UT should be a place where all students feel safe and at home, and this can be ensured by easily accessible seminars and education programs. Educators have a responsibility to their students, and part of that responsibility is their own self-education.

Kashar is an English freshman from Westchester, New York.