Knowing Your Rights

Knowing Your Rights

By Samantha Flax

(Editor’s Note: Samantha Flax grew up in New York, and after college moved to Minnesota to attend BLIND, Inc. She is currently a graduate student at the University of Minnesota pursuing a human rights degree. This is what she has to say about getting the correct accommodations in school.)

As the blind child of a blind mother in a good school district, I had a much easier time than many blind students. While some would point to the quality of my school district and my mother’s knowledge from her own experiences as the most important reasons for my successful access to reasonable accommodations, I would argue that this is not the full picture. Of course, I was greatly fortunate to have these resources, and they without a doubt contributed to my success, I would argue that the most important factor was that my mother taught me how to advocate for myself. From a young age, I was expected to attend meetings regarding my Individualized Education Plan (IEP), I was held to the same academic standards as my peers, and if something wasn’t right, I was encouraged to assist in solving the problem.

Whether you are in high school or college, there are two fundamental questions you should ask yourself. First, ask if you are familiar with what your rights are? Here is a very basic answer. Since the 1970s, there have been specific laws in the United States that protect the rights of students with disabilities. This started with the Education For All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which was the first piece of legislation that guaranteed equal access to a public education for students with disabilities. This act was strengthened by two laws passed in 1990 which further articulated the rights of disabled students. These were the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act. IDEA strengthened the 1975 legislation by providing more details on what students were entitled to in grades K through 12, including the requirement for Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities. These plans are detailed descriptions of what accommodations students need to be successful. The ADA further strengthened and clarified these requirements and also extended rights to students with disabilities at the college and university level. So this is the answer to the first question. Yes, you are entitled to equal access in class and to materials. You have the right to get textbooks in an accessible format, you have the right to have the same opportunities and to be held to the same standards as your sighted peers. If you know these rights, and go into a meeting being confident that you know what you are entitled to, you have already won half the battle.

This leads to the next question, which is what do you need to be successful? Maybe you need braille documents, maybe you need electronic copies of handouts and textbooks. Maybe you need a reader. If you are not sure, remember there is a whole community of people who can help. Many members of the National Federation of the Blind have been students or are still in school, and can always answer questions about what accommodations they used, and how they got them. Whatever it is, know the details and be proactive. Go to your disability services office on campus and get started on accessing accommodations before the start of classes. Reach out to your professors and let them know what you need. Oftentimes, professors will be very accommodating, even when the disability office is not. Never stop fighting for what you deserve. It is not okay for you to receive materials late, it is not okay for a professor to say they cannot accommodate you, and it is not okay for an office to try to convince you not to take a class because of accessibility barriers.

Sometimes this task can seem scary, or like it is a lot of work, but often times, there is a clear path to follow, and your school should support you. Recently, I apologized to a Teaching Assistant because I needed help with some inaccessible software, then I paused, I thought about it, and I realized, I had nothing to apologize for. Never hesitate to advocate for what you need, you are not asking anyone to do extra work, or to give you things that are unreasonable, you are just making sure you have the same opportunities as everyone else.

Go into meetings with your disability services office and teachers with confidence, hold yourself and those around you to high standards, this will make your school experience enjoyable and successful. Remember with the appropriate materials and expectations, you will have a great year! Enjoy it, I am one of those people who finds school fun, and I hope you do too.