Amherst College is withholding important information about its disabled students by claiming a statistic has a right to privacy.
I recently wrote to Amherst College, my alma mater, to inquire how many blind and otherwise physically disabled students had attended and/or graduated in the past decade. In the course of three exchanges, I was told the number itself raises privacy concerns.
The first response offered general information but did cite a different, remarkable statistic:
[Amherst’s Accessibility Services Office] was established as a full-time resource for students in the fall of 2014. In the ensuing years, students’ use of its services has grown from 8% to 27% of the student body in the fall of 2019, which includes housing, academic, and dining accommodations. It’s important to note that this data only represents the students who registered with Accessibility Services and does not represent students with disabilities who did not seek accommodations.
27% of Amherst’s students, most aged between eighteen and twenty-two, deem themselves disabled, and that doesn’t count those who don’t use this office’s services?
The official denied my follow-up request for numbers concerning physically disabled students because “I’m not sure if the College makes that information public.” So I turned to a different Amherst official who sent a slightly more informative statement:
The 27% includes any student who has an ADA [Americans with Disabilities]-covered disability, which includes mental health conditions like ADHD, anxiety and more. Still, within that 27%, Amherst believes that the number of students with physical disabilities is small enough that providing a graduation rate risks those students’ privacy.
The “small” number puts students’ privacy at risk?
Note: By focusing on physically disabled students, I imply no minimization of other disabilities. It isn’t that one is more limiting than another; only that each one requires different accommodations.
My next email, seeking clarification, went jointly to Amherst’s Chief Student Affairs Officer and Director of Accessible Services. The former wrote back:
While we are focused on the undergraduate student experience, the college is proactively making strides to increase access broadly for our entire community. Regarding your request, we are aware that you have corresponded with others at the College, and they have already provided the College’s response. Thank you! [Exclamation point hers]
Considering that I was seeking neither names nor any other personal details, why would Amherst withhold the number? In response to the Chief Student Affairs Officer, I wrote:
On my narrow question about how many blind and other physically disabled students have attended Amherst in the past ten years, your collective position is that the answer raises privacy concerns. Would you please explain in what this privacy interest consists? … On the face of it, Amherst is asserting a novel concept that a statistic has a right to privacy.
As I write, eleven days later, I haven’t received a response.
I should give some background to explain why Amherst is so important to me and what led to my current query.
When I applied to Amherst in the fall of 1971, the Dean of Admission (Amherst dropped the “s”) was candid enough to tell my parents and me that he wasn’t sure the College could accommodate a blind student. The recent blind graduate had, among other things, relied too heavily on faculty wives to read materials to him. Those were still the days before books and documents could be digitized and presented via speech programs to blind computer users. Everything had to be read aloud in person, recorded or brailled. I was fortunate to have a network of reader and brailling resources near my home in Connecticut and apparently convinced Dean Wall that I wouldn’t impose such a burden on the College. In March 1972, he wrote to offer me a place.
I spent a month dithering between Amherst and Yale, where I’d been accepted in the fall, but during a return trip to Amherst’s campus I chanced on a deeply moving discussion on how to protest the Vietnam War that took place on the Quad in Amherst’s beautiful bucolic surroundings. Returning home that evening, I wrote to accept the offer.
I must note here that the blind student who preceded me went on to a notable legal career and circulated the best reporting I’ve come across on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions affecting disabled people. In letters he wrote to me when I was choosing between Amherst and Yale, he alluded to his visits to the College to attend football games with Dean Wall. Despite what the Dean said about the College’s experience with him, they were friends. Sadly, he died a few years ago.
The one course required of all incoming freshman was English 11, as I recall on composition writing, but none of the professors teaching it my first semester would agree to have me in their classes. As a result, I never fulfilled that requirement. I realize how patient, or good-natured, or just plain passive, I was back then when I recall that I shrugged it off. It helped that other professors in the English Department said they would have welcomed me had they been teaching it that year. One of them, David Sofield, offered a course that semester on modern literary autobiography, and I signed up. It was a wonderful course, one of many I’d go on to take at Amherst.
Despite Dean Wall’s concern that I might exhaust the College’s resources, the entire institution got behind me. The Robert Frost Library set aside a room for me where I permanently set up a tape recorder. I spent thousands of hours there with readers, but many of them also worked there alone, recording material that I could later play back at a faster speed on tape. Among my readers were students, faculty wives and at least two professors. Later, Amherst’s freshman dean obtained a tandem bicycle that brave friends rode with me. One still laughs nervously as he recalls harrowing rides as I pumped the peddles like a madman behind him when we swooped down hills and around curves.
More than Amherst’s less welcoming opening moves, I vividly remember the professors who did accept me in their courses, the enduring friendships I made, the habits of learning I acquired. Two or three years ago, looking back over papers I submitted at Amherst, I recognized how the professors’ praise and criticism led to progressive improvements in my work and still inform my writing and thinking today. What a gift.
With the support of so many people, inside as well as outside the College, I graduated summa cum laude. I have always felt this was a shared achievement, at least as much Amherst’s as mine.
But achievement isn’t only about what you accomplish; it can also be about whether you leave behind a legacy that paves the way for others. Amherst admitted a blind woman my senior year and accepted a blind applicant a year or two later. The College recognized that it could accommodate blind students after all.
After the class reunion I attended in 2001, I worked with Amherst’s web design staff to help make the College’s website accessible. Not only did Willa Jernigan do a great job, but she also posted directions for other institutions wishing to make their websites accessible. I worked with another Amherst Web designer when I later encountered accessibility problems. Still later, I heard about a blind student being admitted. I never found out what became of her, but I took it as a sign that Amherst continued to keep an open mind about blind and other disabled students.
However, last month, when I tried to join a classmate’s presentation at this year’s virtual reunion, I couldn’t gain access. Amherst was using a third-party portal to transmit the event, but hadn’t confirmed in advance that the third party’s system was compatible with speech software, known as a screenreader. I could have got a recording afterwards, but I’d wanted to be there in real-time with him and my other classmates, at least to the extent remote participation would allow.
Two reasons come to mind for withholding statistics. One is that a number could be misleading. When I ran the New York Attorney General’s mediation program, I sometimes hesitated to answer a Freedom of Information request about how many complaints had been filed against a business. For example, a company might have generated a host of complaints, but I believed its assurances that the problem was being addressed. I had no choice but to provide the number, but in such cases I’d couch my letters with wording about its ambiguity.
The second reason for withholding numbers is embarrassment. An institution is likely to resist revealing a number showing it isn’t doing enough or that what it is doing is shameful.
Now I have a third reason, one I’d never considered before and which leaves me baffled: Amherst’s apparent claim that a statistic has a right to privacy.
It’s disturbing that respect for privacy, on its face a good thing, has become a device that institutions sometimes exploit for their own protection while affirming they are protecting those to whom the privacy right actually belongs. Governments and corporations have exploited it for their own interests.
In my emails, I suggested to Amherst’s administrators that they’d happily disclose the number of the College’s athletes who have gone on to professional sports, even though it’s tiny. In my day, Amherst gladly disclosed the numbers of students admitted from each state, in some cases only one. Why treat athletic prowess or geographical origin with pride but deem disability so shameful as to trigger a right of privacy?
In fairness, there is a difference. Although an athlete will be admired for achieving professional status and a Montanan need fear no prejudice solely for having come from Montana, disabled people do face discrimination.
One practical way privacy matters is when a disabled person applies for a job. If the work requires some accommodation, such as installation of a speech program on the office’s computers, the applicant might agonize over when to disclose their disability: in the initial contact letter? On being asked to an interview? On arriving at the interview? Many disabled people worry that if they disclose their disability in the initial contact letter, an employer who has negative preconceptions about the disability could find an excuse for rejection before the interview stage, and so the applicant would be unable to demonstrate their ability to perform the job as well as or better than other candidates. If such an employer could find out about the applicant’s blindness from college records, the applicant would be denied the opportunity to pursue this strategy.
I had considerations like this in mind when I stated in advance that I wasn’t looking for names or other details; just numbers.
Nevertheless, there are cogent reasons why maintaining a record of the numbers of different kinds of physically disabled students (blind, deaf, paraplegic, etc.) and making them public would advance the cause of disabled people everywhere.
The world needs to be shown over and over again that people with physical disabilities can prosper in the mainstream. Otherwise, we return to the centuries of being concealed in rooms no one visits or institutions everyone avoids. With today’s increasing acceptance of disabled people, the ADA and similar legislation, and also remarkable advances in technology, there is every reason why physically disabled people can lead fulfilling, professional, social and romantic lives. Indeed, a disability’s limitations might be outweighed by the fortune of a strong network of family and friends, a high degree of psychological self-sufficiency, or other advantages. It’s perfectly plausible that a paraplegic woman might lead a happier life than a nondisabled star actor. But we can’t do it alone, no more than any one else can. It requires educators and employers to welcome us and make appropriate accommodations.
This is why promoting Amherst’s record with students who have physical disabilities would be a good thing, not something to hide. At the same time, physically disabled high school students would benefit from knowing they won’t be the first ones to enter college, never mind succeed there. For example, to be told that one or two, perhaps three or four, blind students attended Amherst in recent years would be greatly encouraging to a blind applicant. Whatever Amherst’s privacy concern in this number might be, it is surely outweighed by the good disclosing it would do.
Besides, without this number, how can an outsider, which I am despite being an alumnus, feel assured that Amherst is welcoming physically disabled students and providing them with appropriate accommodations? With my alumni weekend experience as my only indicator, I am hardly reassured.
I want to trust that Amherst’s administration honestly believes, even if mistakenly, that disclosing this number would compromise student privacy. However, I don’t get how it does, and it looks like they’re not going to explain.
I can think of three objections to my criticism of Amherst’s failure to check for the portal’s accessibility ahead of the reunion.
First, Amherst promptly took steps to remedy the problem, or at least limit the damage. When I notified the College that the portal had prevented me from joining my friend’s presentation, they sent me emails over the course of the reunion weekend with links to other events that presumably worked. Also, I could have listened to the recording of my friend’s presentation. But I was too annoyed. Unlike the freshman I was in 1972, unfazed by the refusal of several professors to have me in their classes, technological and sociological advances since that time make me feel entitled to equal access. Having my participation in a live event blocked by an institution that means so much to me was hurtful.
Second, no one is perfect, least of all me. Amherst made a mistake. They promptly dropped the third-party provider and apologized to me.
Finally, I’m conscious of a degree of arbitrariness in what we can and cannot credibly protest. If a rural Internet Service Provider had dropped the feed at the moment my friend began speaking, tough: No right would have been involved, no discrimination could be claimed. So a hurtful experience that I’d once have told myself to get over became a cause célèbre because a right was involved.
All that said, I can’t help thinking that if there were blind students at Amherst and if the College incorporated accessibility into all its functions, its tech staff would have thought to verify the portal vendor’s accessibility in advance.
In two of Amherst’s responses to my query, I sense a disturbingly politically correct touchy-feeliness. The first response begins:
My name is Tracey…
I can’t imagine writing such a chummy introduction in an official letter.
In the last response I received, the Chief Student Affairs Officer wrote that the Director of Accessible Services “comes to us with a strong social justice education,” which sounds to me more political than job-descriptive. Am I out of touch with today’s education world, or is that world out of synch with society at large?
Otherwise, her email is general: “They [the Accessible Services staff] meet individually with each student to learn about their disability-related circumstances and identify reasonable accommodations that holistically support their educational experience.”
Underneath the general claims and all the jargon (for example, “universal design framework”), are the specific needs of physically disabled students being met? Bland assurances aren’t enough.
These exchanges worry me that today’s disabled students at Amherst, regardless of the nature of their disability, are treated more with sweetness than rigor. Lots of both, I hope, but I do mean both.
Does this mean I’m nostalgic about my own first contacts with Amherst, where I was openly told that the College might not be right for me and where all the English 11 professors wanted nothing to do with me? I still respect the candor, but I’m glad students no longer meet such resistance. Today, exclusion from a course like English 11 is surely inconceivable, but against that improvement is the loss of candor, inherent in political correctness.
One could point out that the conclusion to Amherst’s last response to my query, with that peremptory “thank you!” is hardly sweet. I infer Amherst’s administrators now perceive me as a crank.
It brings to mind an experience familiar to many of us who have a disability. People look to us for inspiration. When we prove to be less than perfect or saintly, or simply to have minds of our own, disappointment sets in and those same people can become disproportionately angered and give up on us: I treated you so well, and this is what I get!
The alternative is even sadder. I have observed some disabled people acting so mild-mannered and passive as to lack personality. They subordinate their true selves in order to keep up that inspirational front in the belief it’s what’s expected of them if they’re to get the support they need.
Please, Amherst, don’t treat your disabled students as snowflakes.
Urban dictionary definition of “snowflake”: A very sensitive person. Someone who is easily hurt or offended by the statements or actions of others.
Treat them considerately, as you would all your students and as I experienced in my day at Amherst, but not as delicate beings who will dissolve on contact with the slightest friction. Otherwise, they’ll graduate unprepared for the post-college world.
Admittedly, the line between justifiably outraged and overly-sensitive can be blurry. My reaction to exclusion from my friend’s presentation perhaps reveals me as a snowflake myself, a possible contradiction for another essay.
Although Amherst’s responses to my query cause me to worry about over-protectiveness, Donald Trump notoriously demonstrated that the sport of mocking disabled people is alive and well. Disabled people can find ourselves caught between the two extremes of progressivism and reactionary libertarianism, between self-censorship and defiance, that today are pulling this country apart.
We don’t have anything like all the answers to how disabled people can best participate in mainstream life. Not even disabled people do; we don’t have so much as a unified answer. If ever there was a contentious group, it’s the disabled.
Still, as I concluded during my years as a consumer lawyer, although we couldn’t protect against every fraud or defend every naïve consumer, we could enforce disclosure, that is, insist that light be shed.
Hiding behind a dubious claim for the privacy of a statistic isn’t going to bring us any closer to a better understanding, never mind a solution.