correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately described the accommodations provided by a 504 plan. The article has been updated.
Reaction to Tuesday’s indictment of 50 people in an alleged college admissions scam, including 33 parents who allegedly used their wealth to get their children into elite universities, was swift and fierce. Critics noted that the story reeks of privilege, overparenting and a hypercompetitive academic culture. One aspect of the news particularly riled disability-rights advocates and parents of children with special needs: One of the ways these parents allegedly gamed the system to benefit their children involved faking learning disabilities to get accommodations on standardized college admissions tests.
For children who really do struggle with learning and other disabilities, taking those high-pressure tests is challenging. Those accommodations, which can include extra time to complete the exam, are there to create fairness for students who encounter daily challenges in their education. Parents work overtime fighting to secure these accommodations, to try to level the playing field a bit. So finding out that people are abusing that system is a bitter pill for them to swallow.
“The thing that makes me the angriest about this is that my kids are already very hesitant to ask for accommodations because they don’t appear disabled,” says Shannon Rosa, senior editor of the website Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and mom to three children ages 14, 18 and 20 — all of whom have disabilities. “There’s a stigma around receiving accommodations. Some people treat 504s and IEPs like they’re optional, but they’re the law. When you see wealthy parents gaming the system for things that people already have trouble accessing, it makes it even harder for those people who legitimately deserve and need them.”
A 504 plan offers a student services and changes to the learning environment (such as extra time on tests or scheduled testing breaks) based on the federal Rehabilitation Act that protects the civil rights of people with disabilities. Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) provide personalized special education services and accommodations to meet the needs of children with one or more disabilities as identified by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These include invisible impairments such as dyslexia, ADHD, autism and speech or language disabilities.
“Accommodations — for students who truly need them — are vital to their ability to succeed,” says Ana Homayoun, a founder and director of Silicon Valley-based Green Ivy Educational Consulting. “But high-powered parents aren’t used to hearing the word ‘no.’ They’re dealmakers; they look at college admissions as just another deal to be made. These parents have a misguided sense of what it takes to find success. They get caught up in wanting to give their kids all the best resources and mistakenly believe that finding a way to qualify their kids for accommodations they don’t need will give them better access and opportunity. In truth, if you don’t know the material, you’re not really going to benefit from extra time.”
Rosa, who lives in the Bay Area, says she sees how the pressure to do well combined with access to wealth and power can push families to the point where it feels like cheating is a viable option. “Some of the people who are involved in this indictment live in my community; they live in a privilege bubble. If that’s your world, that’s what people do, you become inured and susceptible to peer pressure. When there’s a superabundance of qualified students and not enough slots, it makes people desperate.”
Kathryn Gray, an independent school educational specialist and member of the Bay Area Learning Consortium, says that when she sees a student asking for accommodations between their sophomore and junior year of high school, it’s often a red flag.
“Some parents seek a private specialist in order to get a diagnosis that will allow their child to receive accommodations, even if that child has been successful in school up to that point. And there are a lot of individuals who will look at kids’ profiles and give them a diagnosis of a learning difference or discrepancy that falls outside ADA guidelines,” Gray says. “The students who must have these accommodations need them in order to level the playing field. These competitive parents who are driven by fear feel like they have to provide every possible advantage to their own children. And the thing is, unless you really need these accommodations, it doesn’t really help much.”
What it does do, says Gray, is far more deleterious: “It sends a message to your child that you’re not good enough on your own merit. What you can achieve on your own isn’t enough, so we have to cheat the system.”
Advocates worry that the people most hurt by stories like this will be the children who truly need help, and could face more hoops to jump through as part of a larger crackdown on testing accommodations.
“It is so deeply disturbing to read about people who are manipulating systems put in place for people with disabilities for their own purposes,” says Ellen Seidman, author of the parenting blog Love that Max and a mom of three. “Remember when people started hiring disabled tour guides at Disney so they could cut the lines? As a result, Disney changed their policy, making it even harder for parents whose kids would have sensory meltdowns in crowds or get physically fatigued just standing in line. My son Max has cerebral palsy. He can walk, but he gets exhausted and works much harder to do the things that you and I do without thinking.”
Seidman also worries how this will affect the stigma the children who need accommodations already face. “There are so many biases against children and teens with disabilities as it is. As a parent of a child with disabilities, there are endless uphill battles that we need to contend with every day. When you start taking advantage of these accommodations illegally, you’re hurting the people who need them. You’re taking their rights away.”
Adrienne Wichard-Edds writes about parenting and cultural issues. Follow her on Twitter @WichardEdds.