Colorado bill would improve services for students with disabilities

Sam Jarris spent years moving from college to college before graduating. As a student with autism, he often found that professors and administrators were either indifferent or hostile to what he needed to be successful.

Jarris, 31, remembers asking a teacher to change a word problem he was having trouble understanding due to his disability. The teacher refused, saying he was not going to change his lesson material for a student.

“Basically, I was told that if I couldn’t pass the course, I was not welcome to attend school,” Jarris said.

The Colorado legislature will be considering a proposal this year that aims to make the journey a little easier for students like Jarris, whether their disabilities are physical or cognitive.

The bill sponsored by Representative David Ortiz, a Democrat from Littleton, and drafted by the Colorado Department of Advanced Education, would create a committee to recommend strategies to help students with disabilities graduate from college.

The bill would also require colleges and universities in Colorado to report annually how many students with disabilities enroll and graduate, as well as what services schools have to help those students.

The legislation would not have seen the light of day without Jarris, who has sent numerous emails over the years to state officials about his experiences and filed case requests asking what colleges are doing to help students with disabilities.

The bill signals a first push for more resources for students with disabilities so they have the proper tools to navigate college.

Ortiz said the bill represents an opportunity to shed light on the barriers faced by people with disabilities in college and in everyday life. Ortiz, an Army veteran who uses a wheelchair, said even as a lawmaker he didn’t have the resources at the State Capitol to do his job. For example, an elevator was installed in the chambers of the Chamber for Ortiz to access the President’s podium.

Ortiz said his experiences show the world was created for able-bodied people, not those with hidden or visible disabilities.

“If you’re wondering why we’re four times more likely to be below the poverty line, it’s not because we don’t have the capacity. It’s because we don’t have the opportunity, ”said Ortiz. “And we’re not talking about the possibility of special treatment. We are talking about the opportunity for basic human dignity – basic access. “

During Jarris’ time at university, disability services offices were pushed into the confines of campuses or hidden in dark libraries or offices, he said.

In some cases, he has found hostility towards his disability. Instead of helping her, university officials criticized her for not understanding the job or explained why they could not provide her with accommodation. Jarris said a professor cited academic freedom as an explanation for why he shouldn’t consider his disability.

He also encountered uneven standards. The administrators said they did not need to provide services to him. Jarris said cognitive disabilities are often overlooked due to outdated standards in the Americans with Disabilities Act. He said all students with disabilities deserve to succeed in college, whether they have a physical disability or a cognitive disability like autism.

“I found out that they are going to try to provide you with the floor and that they are going to treat it like the ceiling,” he said. “And if you ask for anything more, then you are a burden.”

Jarris’ diligence laid the groundwork for Carl Einhaus to begin researching the problem. Einhaus, senior director of student success at CDHE, said he started exploring the issue thanks to Jarris.

In 2019, he surveyed schools and found that what schools collect cannot paint a picture of outcomes for students with disabilities.

“When you have that type of dynamic, it’s hard to have an informed conversation,” Einhaus said.

Colorado is not alone. Nationally, few states are doing much to help students with disabilities in higher education, said Wendy Harbor, of the Association on Higher Education and Disability programs and associate director of development. This is different from Kindergarten to Grade 12, where schools must write individual plans for students with disabilities.

Because that’s not a goal, the college can sometimes become a hostile place for students with disabilities, she said. She has seen many students drop out and never come back.

“And the most visited page on our website is the Crisis Resources page,” Harbor said. “I think that says a lot there.”

For Jarris, he said the hostile environments he encountered had pushed him towards more and more advocacy initiatives. It’s a job he said he was good at and within his family – his uncle once led the state Democratic Party.

Jarris hopes that if lawmakers pass the bill, the committee will include people with different types of disabilities. About a quarter of the United States has a disability, but Jarris said people like him are generally silent on issues that concern them, underrepresented in politics, or find it difficult to access the political system. He wants that to change.

“I’m sick of people thinking that people with disabilities have everything they need,” Jarris said. “Where is the support and critical reception of the needs of people with disabilities? It requires monumental social justice.

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