My son or daughter is adamant- he/she doesn't want anything to do with any disability office!

From the perspective of those of us with disabilities, this attitude or reaction to disability professionals is not surprising. In fact, it's a given that disability is devalued in our culture. It's easy to recognize that being ostracized by peers is devaluing. Unfortunately the good intentions of professionals and other adults can do as much or more to reinforce devaluation. Simply put, your student may feel shame about having a disability and want to turn away from it.

Uncomfortable as it is to say, the experience of Special Education, resource rooms, or 504 services (adult services such as Vocational Rehabilitation and even Disability Services offices are not immune, either) may result in unintended effects on students. They don't want "help" anymore. They don't want someone looking over their shoulder. They don't want to be expected to achieve less than their peers. Whatever happened or didn't happen in high school, these are often the feelings students come away with, and may be part of what motivates a student to avoid Disability Services. Believe it or not, the student simply may be trying to preserve a "positive" sense of self.

Students rightly want to feel that the work they do in school is of equal value to that of their classmates. They often express discomfort at feeling like they are getting some advantage others may not have, and they struggle with the feeling that they could be the object of charity by well-meaning adults. They often tell us "I just want to make it on my own, without any help."

Disability Services does not "help" students. We do not look over students' shoulders to ensure that they are getting their homework done and going to class. We don't hold his/her hands to get him or her through registration or financial aid problems, or reduce the academic standard so that he/she won't experience feelings of failure. These things, while intended to be helpful, are more likely to cement the conviction that the student is less qualified than other students to be at The University of Montana. Rest assured -- kids recognize when that is happening. In the long run, that kind of help hurts. It can contribute to serious academic consequences when a student gets to college.

Rejecting negative attitudes about disability, about ourselves, is the right thing to do, so long as we recognize that the assumptions and devaluation of disability are the underlying problem -- not the disability itself. The student may come to terms with his or her disability in one of two ways. The most important is changing his/her attitude about having a disability. This requires assuming the attitude that disability is a normal part of life, and that the student has every right to be here. It means that the student must look at accommodations, not as a reduction in expectations, but as a means to level the playing field -- because we won't reduce the academic standards. It also necessitates an acknowledgment of the functional limitations of his/her disability and refusal to apologize for being who he or she is.

If you are even partly successful in communicating these ideas to your student, you will have done more for him or her than you will ever know. But for many students who come to UM wanting to shed their disability "status" like a snake sheds its skin, they may likely experience the second way of coming to terms with their disability. They may not come to Disability Services until they are in trouble academically, or with Financial Aid. It may seem as though some students need to be knocked down hard before they are ready to learn how to hold their heads up without shame. This is an unfortunate, but common, aspect of the disability experience.

What else can you do? Keep sending your student the message that it's up to him or her, that you have faith in he or she, and he or she has nothing to be ashamed of or apologize for. Let your student know that a visit to Disability Services doesn't mean a commitment. That he or she is in control of his or her academic career and civil rights also means the right to refuse any accommodation. But the student ought to fully inform himself or herself about what his or her choices may be before deciding.

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