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Unintended Consequences of Protecting the Disabled

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Misericordia University in Pennsylvania is being sued by a student because she failed a course – twice. While it might be tempting to think that this is yet another “special little snowflake” case involving someone that simply doesn’t want to follow the rules, this involves a woman who suffers from depression and anxiety. The stress of taking final exams had been too much for her, and now she is suing for financial damages. However, her attorney contends that her primary goal is to have a chance to sit for the exams, and try again. She is no longer a student at the university, so that could be difficult in itself.

The student was enrolled in a nursing program, which would lead to a highly stressful career. While the attorney representing her was quick to claim that people can be nurses while suffering from depression or anxiety, there are probably at least a few mental health professionals that would state that a career in nursing can lead to those mental problems. Test-taking is not a direct indicator for success in a career, but if the stress from a test debilitates a student, it’s not unreasonable to assume that job stress would do the same.

This lawsuit is being filed as a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it brings up an interesting question of ethics when it comes to these protections. Is it proper for a person to be able to use the protections this law offers in all cases involving access to higher education, including when one’s disability would prevent that person from actually getting a job in the field of study? The ADA simply guarantees a person’s access to education, but does not guarantee that education would be paid for in full by government, thankfully.

In the case of this woman, the university will undoubtedly argue that the institution is doing her a favor by not permitting her to retake the exam. Also, they will probably point out her inability to deal with stress, which is a proven part of the career she had chosen. The ADA argument may or may not work for her attorney, but it probably shouldn’t. It should be considered unethical to put a disabled person in debt for an education that person cannot use. It is an unintended consequence of seeking to protect a class of people from being discriminated against in education, but it may bear some consideration.

While government is not typically known for abiding by rules of common sense, in this case and others like it, perhaps it is time to consider limiting the protections offered by ADA, at least to prevent financial losses and debt from educations that cannot be used in the workforce. Or maybe it will take lawsuits of a different kind – disabled persons suing schools for protecting their “rights” to educations that lead to career paths they cannot follow because of their disabilities.


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