Boston University has long been a leader in helping students
with learning disabilities earn their diplomas. Students who have
trouble concentrating in class can have assistants take notes for
them. Those who don't process information quickly get extra time on
But two years ago, the university began to reevaluate these
services, prompted by what the school says were faculty complaints.
Learning-disabled students on the Gothic-spired campus objected,
and BU is now embroiled in a lawsuit that could define how colleges
across the US identify and serve such students.
At issue is whether students with special needs can get an equal
education in America's most hallowed halls of learning. But the
emotional case now unfolding in a federal courtroom in Boston also
points to a broader issue - individual rights versus academic
"The larger issue is, exactly what are the rights and
responsibilities of students compared with the rights of
institutions to protect their academic integrity and academic
standards?" says Salome Heyward of Heyward Lawton & Associates in
Cambridge, Mass., which advises universities and businesses on
complying with disability law.
Take Elizabeth Guckenberger, a third-year BU law student. She
was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disorder believed to
impair reading ability, when she was a college freshman. When she
started law school at BU in 1994, BU granted her a reduced course
load, which means she will graduate in four years, rather than
three. In addition, she takes exams in a quiet room and gets twice
the time as other students.
"I definitely need my accommodations to achieve the success that
I'm able to," says Ms. Guckenberger, one of 10 students who sued
the university in July 1996.
But in 1995, BU told her she would need to be reevaluated - at
an out-of-pocket cost of $800. Guckenberger still qualifies as
learning-disabled under BU's new policies, but other students do
not. "I jumped through all their hoops," she says, "but there were
students who didn't who were denied accommodations."
The students' suit charges that the university violates the 1990
Americans With Disabilities Act. Under the act, universities must
provide "reasonable accommodations" for students with disabilities
- including those with learning difficulties. The case is expected
to settle several key issues:
* What documentation colleges can require of a student to
establish that he or she is learning disabled.
* What accommodations they must provide.
* Whether universities can refuse to allow any substitutions for
"What, hopefully, this case will do is give the parties on both
sides a sense of where the line is," says Ms. Heyward.
More learning-disabled students
The private liberal-arts university is not alone in reexamining
how it serves students with disabilities. Cuts in state and federal
funding are forcing other institutions to take a closer look at the
programs they provide. …