University student files complaint with Department of Human Rights over getting accommodations fulfilled
Student Julia Harvey filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights following trouble with a professor, and requested assistance from the DRC, the EOAA and CLA leadership after requesting disability accommodations be fulfilled.
Published April 4, 2022
When Julia Harvey saw her friend’s graduation ceremony in 2019, she said she felt like she might be ready to return to her college education.
Harvey, who is 26, chose to pause her studies at the University of St. Thomas as a second-year student because of chronic health conditions.
“I started my sophomore year at St. Thomas in 2016 but pretty quickly realized my health issues were too bad to stay and I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to major in,” Harvey said in an email to the Minnesota Daily. “I worked different jobs for a while, life had me unexpectedly bouncing around a bit.”
At the start of the 2020-21 academic year, Harvey chose to resume her studies at the University of Minnesota.
“Seeing Maggie walk across the stage and accept her degree was such a cool moment,” Harvey said in an email. “She had worked so hard to get there and I felt like I was finally at a place with my health that I could do it too.”
Now, the second-year student is planning to double major in strategic communications and cultural studies and comparative literature at the University. However, after returning to college, Harvey faced a new challenge.
Harvey said one of her professors pushed back against her requests for disability accommodations throughout the fall 2021 semester. When she sought help from the University, she said she was met with conflicting advice from different departments. This led Harvey to file a discrimination complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) in February.
“Students who are sick like me are often giving it their all just to make it through the semester and making an instructor afford you your rights is an absurd thing to add to your to-do list,” Harvey said in an email.
The Daily chose not to name the professor because no official charges have been filed. Harvey’s complaint lists the University as the respondent, not the professor.
University staff that specialize in accessibility said that at the University, there is no standard way disability accommodations detailed in an accommodations letters are supposed to be implemented, giving professors control over how to interpret and permit accommodations in the classroom.
“The function of the DRC is to facilitate appropriate accommodations,” the professor said in the email. “They cannot demand anything that either interferes with a faculty member’s educational strategies or infringes upon faculty autonomy.”
When asked for comment, University Public Relations Director Jake Ricker emailed the Minnesota Daily and said the University would not be able to provide details because of laws designed to protect student privacy.
Students who are sick like me are often giving it their all just to make it through the semester and making an instructor afford you your rights is an absurd thing to add to your to-do list.
— Julia Harvey
Before Harvey filed a complaint with the MDHR, she consulted with the University Disability Resource Center (DRC), the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) and leadership within the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) to get her accommodations fulfilled.
The MDHR complaint was sent to the University Feb. 8 and the University had 30 days to respond, according to the complaint document.
“While it would be great if the U and I were able to find a mutually agreeable plan for moving forward, I am concerned the University will continue to try and dismiss any wrongdoing or culpability on their part,” Harvey said in an email.
Since then, the University has agreed to mediation with Harvey, she said.
“I need to impress the fact that what [the professor] did was not just annoying or hard, it was another obstacle on top of every single other [hurdle] in my life,” Harvey emailed the Minnesota Daily.
How students get accommodations
Before the fall semester, Harvey said she met with the DRC to talk about accommodations she might need for her health conditions, which included postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Idiopathic Hypersomnia, ADHD, brain fog as a complication of POTS and an auditory processing disorder.
“The DRC advisor who was assigned to me was really helpful,” Harvey said.
Accommodation letters are determined through conversations between students and staff at the DRC. However, accommodations are not fulfilled until a professor deems them reasonable for their course and implements the recommendations in the letter.
These conversations are called an “interactive process,” where students discuss their educational needs, DRC access consultants consider how to mitigate those barriers and instructors speak to how to implement accommodations while fulfilling course requirements.
The DRC determines reasonable accommodation based on the student’s medical documentation and disability barriers. “The DRC makes the final determination on what disability accommodations are reasonable,” according to a roles and responsibilities fact sheet.
Some of the accommodations Harvey and the access consultant decided on included getting more time on exams and flexibility with deadlines. According to Harvey, the access consultant “was able to suggest options that might work for me based on the things that I struggled with.”
According to Harvey, her auditory processing disorder “makes things sound like the game Mad Gab, where you get nonsense phonetic spellings of words and have to figure out what the phrase is.” Because of this, access to presentation materials like powerpoint slides would have been a helpful accommodation, Harvey said in an email.
A semester of doctor’s appointments
During the fall, Harvey was in and out of the hospital for surgeries to address her chronic illnesses. She said she had to attend pre-op, post-op and follow-up appointments which led her to miss classes.
At the start of the semester, Harvey provided the professor with her accommodation letter. Among other accommodations, the letter requested the professor “provide presentation slides to the student prior to class,” to address potential barriers to her learning.
After missing a class in early October, she asked the professor for lecture materials to catch up.
“I had emailed [them] a couple of times asking for the slides and [they] either didn’t answer or answered a different part of the message,” Harvey said.
In response to Harvey’s request for the slides, the professor told Harvey that she could get course notes from other students or come to office hours to go over lecture points as an alternative accommodation, according to email correspondence.
When Harvey went to class, Harvey said the professor announced that they would not be giving out the presentation slides because the materials were their intellectual property, and reaffirmed that in an email to Harvey in October.
In emails obtained by the Minnesota Daily, the professor wrote to Harvey that there is “only so much” either of them could do to make up class content if she missed class because of her medical conditions.
The professor suggested Harvey consider whether the medical issues she faced were significant enough for her to take a medical leave for the fall semester, and they hoped Harvey was on the road to full health.
Harvey said it was a devastating email to receive.
“I cried (sobbed) in the car, briefly entertained actually dropping out and wiped off my tears enough to attend [the lecture],” Harvey said in an email.
Harvey said being chronically ill felt like a full-time job and on top of that, she was healing from two surgeries while managing school work.
“I offered to discuss what was going on with me with [the professor],” Harvey said in an email.
Harvey said that the professor did not respond to her email requests for assistance.
“Having taught at the University for [many] years, I considered, among other forms of flexibility granted, peer note-taking to be the appropriate accommodation with respect to my lectures,” the professor wrote in their statement. “Let me stress, then, that there were no barriers to learning that the Teaching Assistants and I did not attempt to address.”
Feeling like she had no other option, Harvey reached out to the DRC for help.
“If that [fall semester] experience had been my first semester back at school I would not have finished the semester,” Harvey wrote.“I would have dropped out.”
Harvey said that she initially enjoyed having the professor for those two classes.
“I was hoping to get in [their] good graces and maybe TA a class or look into other professor-student research opportunities,” Harvey wrote. “After a few weeks I disregarded that idea and just focused on passing.”
A tangle of departments
After Harvey’s attempts to get the slides from her professor were unsuccessful, she reached out to several University departments for help.
Her case was redirected to Ascan Koerner, the CLA Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.
The DRC has exhausted our process here … The DRC cannot mandate the faculty/program do anything.
— Sohail Akhavein, DRC student access manager
The University’s EOAA investigates reports of discrimination, sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, nepotism and retaliation.
Harvey said the communication between the DRC and the EOAA was confusing, as she received conflicting advice regarding which department or individual to reach out to for support.
Joe Borer-Bell, the Equal Opportunity Senior Associate from the EOAA, emailed Harvey in mid-November and said that after consulting internally and with the DRC, the EOAA decided it would not be involved any further until the interactive process of determining appropriate accommodations between Harvey and the professor, was done.
“Until there is an impasse in the interactive process, EOAA is not able to take additional steps,” Borer-Bell emailed. “We hope you will continue working with the DRC to find an appropriate accommodation.”
Later, Borer-Bell wrote to Harvey that the EOAA did not believe a formal investigation was appropriate because access to presentation slides was written as an inclusive teaching practice, not a reasonable accommodation.
“If this is an accommodation that you will need in the future, we recommend that you work with your medical provider and the DRC so that this accommodation can be properly identified in your accommodations letter,” Borer-Bell wrote.
DRC Student Access manager Sohail Akhavein clarified for Harvey that while the professor chose not to share the slides, they still were engaging in the interactive process with the DRC “to explore alternatives,” by suggesting other accommodations such as designating a note taker for her and setting up meetings to go over lecture content.
Eight minutes after Borer-Bell emailed Harvey to say the EOAA could not take additional steps and she should continue consulting with the DRC, Harvey said she received an email from Akhavein who said the DRC could no longer help her obtain accommodations from the professor and should instead consult further with the EOAA.
“The DRC has exhausted our process here,” Akhavein wrote. “The DRC cannot mandate the faculty/program do anything.”
According to Akhavein, this case is “tricky” because the DRC cannot mandate faculty adhere to inclusive design strategies, such as sharing presentation materials.
Universal or inclusive design practices prioritize accessibility and flexibility in the classroom and lesson plans. They are not required by law, but reasonable accommodations are, according to Donna Johnson, the director of the DRC.
The DRC and EOAA claimed access to presentation materials was an inclusive design practice, and therefore not legally required. Koerner, the associate dean for undergraduate education in CLA, deemed the presentation slides a “reasonable accommodation,” which is legally-required to be fulfilled, in a November email that Akhavein shared with Harvey.
“I have determined that the request to receive lecture powerpoint slides is a reasonable accommodation for the student,” Koerner wrote to the chair of the professor’s department. “Please inform [the professor] that [they] must make the slides, or a reasonable representation of their content available to the student without further delay.”
Harvey said no presentation slides for the course were ever sent to her following this communication. According to email correspondence, the professor responded to Koerner’s request and expressed they felt they were within their rights as faculty to not send Harvey the presentation slides.
Additionally, the professor stopped using presentation slides in their next class period, Harvey said.
In an November email to Harvey, Akhavein said Harvey’s situation could open up the possibility for conversations in the department around fulfilling disability accommodations.
“While the time it has taken to get to this point is not ideal, I am very glad we’ve landed here,” Akhavein wrote to Harvey. “[It] … invites further conversations around inclusive teaching strategies that support all students — not just those who are willing to navigate the bureaucracy of our office to seek academic accommodations.”
There is currently nothing in place at the University to instruct professors on how to fulfill accommodations in an accommodations letter, according to Ben Munson, the former University Senate Disabilities Committee Chair.
The University also does not require professors to use universal design strategies and does not have any resources in place to inform them how to use such strategies in their classrooms, he said.
A University taskforce established in 2020 is working to create resources for faculty and staff who want to better understand accommodation letters and support students with disabilities.
“It has only been in the last couple of years that the letters from the DRC even talk about universal design,” Munson said. “So part of what the professional development module would be about is just how to interpret the letter.”
According to Munson, while the ADA does not mandate universal design, it is the job of disability advocates to promote its implementation in classrooms.
“As a chair of a department, it’s my job when I hire new faculty to hire people who believe in universal design and intend to implement universal design in their courses,” Munson said.
Harvey said she expected an easy resolution when she requested accommodations from the professor because she had been met with support and understanding from professors in the past.
“I’m sure the U or [the professor] don’t understand why powerpoint slides are the hill I’ve chosen to die on, but it’s so much more than just that,” Harvey wrote. “It’s the multiple surgeries, the side effects, it’s how much I have gone through to get to the place I am now.”
Following the end of the fall semester, Harvey filed the complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. In an email, she wrote that she wanted to work to make it easier for other students before and after her, who may experience the same hardship.
The Minnesota Department of Human Rights is the state’s “civil rights enforcement agency.” This department seeks to uphold civil rights by enforcing the Minnesota Human Rights Act and investigates allegations of discrimination.
“I need to do what is in my power to make change in order to facilitate other disabled students to succeed,” Harvey wrote. “Usually it feels like you can kick and scream all you want but nothing changes and you are just another single person under a huge organization with so much red tape they can’t even see you. This time will be different.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Ben Munson’s position. Munson is the former University Senate Disabilities Committee Chair.