Troubling University of Houston Case
But a lawsuit filed Thursday against the University of Houston involves a student with an undisputed disability who says he was turned down by a professor, without explanation, for his requests for accommodations. Not only is the suit challenging the treatment of the student, but the litigation is demanding that the university abandon a policy in which professors have wide leeway to decide whether to comply with requests from students with disabilities.
“This policy allows professors complete discretion, and that’s illegal,” said Ernest Saadiq Morris, a lawyer for the Texas Civil Rights Project who is handling the case. It’s as if, Morris said, a public university announced that it was going to let individual professors decide whether to follow laws that bar discrimination on the basis of race or gender.
“They are trying to delegate the undelegatable,” said Morris. “This case shows a resistance at some universities to viewing discrimination against people with disabilities as what we have accepted as unfair or illegal practice.”
Officials from the university said that they could not comment directly on litigation, but confirmed that the policies cited in the lawsuit remain in effect. Donna G. Hamilton, general counsel for the university, said: “The welfare of our students is a primary concern at the University of Houston. We take such complaints very seriously and we are committed to resolving any problems that we may find.”
The plaintiff in the case is Gary Bradford, who was starting his senior year at Houston in the fall of 2005, when the disputed actions took place. As a result of a genetic impairment, Bradford was born without arms and his hands are attached at his shoulders. He also has rickets, seizures and immune deficiencies and uses a wheelchair for mobility. When he enrolled at Houston, he registered with the university’s Center for Students With Disabilities, which both verified his disability and approved a set of recommendations to help him succeed academically. Those recommendations included obtaining notes from classmates and instructors.
With professors generally cooperating, Bradford was proceeding until he enrolled in a required social sciences writing course last fall. According to the lawsuit, the instructor and teaching assistants turned down — without explanation — Bradford’s requests for accommodations such as providing him with notes of class lectures and discussions and copies of slides used in class sessions. What is striking, according to Bradford’s lawyer, is that the instructors apparently had the right under the university’s policy to do so (even if that is against the law).