The Rise Act is the wrong ACT to Follow

The RISE ACT is simple enough. You can read it here: Text – S.2550 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): RISE Act of 2021 | Congress.gov | Library of Congress. In fact, I like how simple it is. It’s a one-page law. I think more should be this way and not 20,000 pages that you must pass the bill in order to see what’s in it. Here is the introduction to the Bill: “To amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to provide students with disabilities and their families with access to critical information needed to select the right college and succeed once enrolled.” Noble goal. I support that goal. I do not support how the Bill proposes to get there.

What It Does

The Bill does a few things. It specifies what types of documentation must accept specifically IEP’s, 504 plans, VA documentation, evaluations, and a record of disability from another school; It mandates that school policies should be transparent and easily viewed, and it mandates training for faculty about students with disabilities. Not bad. However, that’s where the good stuff ends. There’s a lot more hidden beneath the surface and none of it is any good.

The RISE Act’s main focus is on IEP’s and 504 plans, the rest is just added on as an afterthought. Proponents of the Bill have made the argument that this Bill is needed because of burdensome documentation requirements, which often end up with parents needing to get another evaluation privately. Proponents argue that is costly and burdensome. That may be true, however, it’s not the full story.

There is no Burden. Lie One.

Documentation requirements by any college or university are there to ensure the recency of the issues present. Not to be burdensome. It’s only burdensome because K-12 is negligent in reevaluating students with disabilities. It’s not uncommon for accessibility staff to get evaluations from when the student was still in grade school. Anyone familiar with evaluations will tell you that is not accurate for a student who is 18. Tell me how that’s fair to any disabled student. How is that just? It leaves a student unprepared for the rest of their educational and career aspirations. College is only trying to do its part to ensure that the school meets the requirements under the ADA and 504. K-12 is to blame not college.

Documentation is also not burdensome. It’s necessary. At least the Rise Act gets it right in that part. The burden is the cost and time needed to get another evaluation. K-12 should’ve done an updated eval sophomore through senior year, but they didn’t. Now, it falls n the parents to get another evaluation and their main argument against obtaining another eval is that it’s costly, not that it’s not needed. See the deception.

Besides, if K-12 isn’t going to do what’s right and just, then it falls on the parents to get it done. Is that a burden? Doubtful. If any parent who has taken their kid to the ER will tell you, the expense isn’t an issue when your kid needs things. Further, we’re ready with the credit card any time our dog needs to see an emergency vet and we get a $1,500 bill. We justify the expense. However, somehow, if we believe our federal senators, a new, updated eval is not justified in fact it’s unnecessary because we have this new RISE Act that takes care of it. Wrong. It’s an implied lie.

The Lies Continue

The Bill only allows for the establishment of a disability. It does not guarantee accommodations. Here’s a little dirty secret. A disability can be established by a student’s history. So, when accessibility staff gets an IEP it’s a pretty good indicator that a disability is present. In fact, accessibility staff can make an assessment that a student has had a disability just from an IEP. That is called disability by history, but there is more needed to establish a current disability. It’s about something called “current impact.” Current impact is needed to establish eligibility for accommodations. Do the issues presented have an impact on the student right now? Maybe not.

For example, a student who has had a 504 plan because of depression, can be determined to have had a disability by history. However, the question is about the current impact. This depressed student may not have had a depressive episode in two years. The question is logical. Are they still disabled? If they are not seeing a therapist and not on any medications, then, no, they aren’t. Why? No current impact. They were disabled but they aren’t now because there is no current impact. The Bill never tells parents this. It just manipulates them into thinking that being called disabled is all that’s needed to get accommodations. It’s not.

The eval is still needed.

To get current impact, accessibility staff get that from two components: student report and the documentation. For students with IEPs both can be problematic. Why? Most students with learning disabilities have significant problems describing their disability. It’s also one of the main reasons for my online courses and my book. Thus, the student report becomes problematic for establishing a current impact. Students with learning disabilities cannot give it. Further, as stated prior, the evaluation may be from grade school making it useless to establish anything recent. A new evaluation is the only way to ensure the accuracy of the current impact. A recent eval is a perfect description of the student at present, not from ten years ago.

Just an IEP does not give the full description of the need nor does the student self-report nor does the parent report. You can only do so much with limited information. The accommodations if approved won’t be the full amount that may be needed because the accessibility staff does not have full information by which to make the determination. A student could go in with needed ten accommodations and leave with three. Accessibility staff cannot approve accommodations with a limited set of information that does not support each requested accommodation. See the problem with the Bill? None of this is higher ed’s fault as the Bill and its proponents want you to believe.

Lies by Omission

The Bill is grandstanding at best and does nothing ultimately. The determination of a current disability and eligibility for accommodations remains the responsibility of the individual college. The Bill neglects to inform parents of this. For example, if the Bill becomes law, a student can submit their IEP and the school must accept it (not that they ever wouldn’t) and that a disability is present. However, the determination of eligibility for accommodations still needs to be done and the school will still need the current impact. It gets worse. Because of the Bill students and, moreover their parents, will be thinking accommodations directly follow from a disability. No, it does not. The school can still turn around and let you know that a current evaluation completed within the past three years is needed. Why? It’s the only thing that can verify the current impact with any amount of validity and reliability. The Bill and its proponents will never tell you that. Lie of omission.

What’s the motivation?

It’s logical to ask if the Bill does nothing, then why even have it? Here’s the reason. Faculty training. There are several factions that come together to support this Bill for their own reasons. It’s a perfect storm of support from a variety of groups that otherwise would not be involved together. The people who support college-as-a-right support the Bill to gain more access for those who have hidden disabilities. It’s not that I don’t support more access for those with hidden disabilities. I do. I just don’t support improving access by legislative fiat with a Bill that does nothing and manipulates everything. Further, there are supporters of college access that want to eliminate paper documentation altogether and just rely on the student’s report. Yeah, no problems there at all (sarcasm intended). Then, there are the folks that want K-12 to become K-16. No lie.

The K-16 crowd is a big group. What’s their main issue? No supports for those with learning disabilities and 504 plans in the same way as K-12. The K-16 people want to change that, like yesterday. They believe that college is not only a right but that the way college is set up is a detriment to the success of their child. Their child cannot go to college because the supports aren’t there to help them be successful.

These folks never address the real reason for college existing, nor students being qualified to attend and remain there, nor the purpose of faculty. They just want their kid to attend college. What’s the main complaint? Faculty have no clue how to teach students with learning disabilities. I attended a webinar about the RISE Act given by a leading advocacy group. The whole presentation used statistics and evidence that college faculty aren’t trained teachers and have no training in teaching students with learning disabilities. It was just a 45-minute presentation designed to scare parents and gin up support for the RISE Act.

Faculty training was included in the original writing of the bill and later taken out. It’ll be back. It’s the main reason for the bill’s existence.

Legal Conflicts

I’m not a lawyer, but it does not take a lawyer to see the inherent conflict that may arise between this Bill if becoming a law and the ADA. The ADA’s definition of a disability is specific. Accessibility staff use it all the time. Disability is not defined by documentation alone. However, the RISE Act doesn’t amend the ADA. Good luck doing that. So, the senator decided to amend a different act that’s related to higher education from 1965. Clever on the senator’s part but he’s a politician so manipulation and being clever are part of the skillset. However, it does not account for how the ADA defines disability, nor does it account for how the RISE Act conflicts with it.

The Bill states, “Nothing in this paragraph shall be construed to preclude an institution from establishing less burdensome criteria than that described in subparagraph (A) to establish an individual as an individual with a disability and therefore eligible for accommodations.” I see only problems. This is so manipulative and a lie. First, the Bill only establishes that the documentation makes the student someone with a disability NOT that they are, therefore, eligible for reasonable accommodations. It does not mandate accommodations, but it would like to give you the impression it does. Second, it is just a suggestion to institutions to have less rigorous policies for documentation. Ok, fine suggest, but a suggestion is not a legal requirement to give your student anything, nor is it a mandate to have more flexible policies. Third, It also provides for schools to have transparent policies on how they determine whether a student has a disability. Why make that statement if the law establishes a student has a disability and that accommodations directly follow? Because they don’t. It begs the question. How do colleges determine a disability? The ADA’s definition of a disability. The bottom line is the RISE Act conflicts with it.

There are better ways than just the law.

If you kept reading, it’s no secret that I dislike this law in its entirety. I do have suggestions that do not require any law or conflict with any other law.

1. Have the secretary of education put out guidelines for all school districts to update every student’s evaluation by the end of senior year. If Obama had a pen and a phone, a presidential executive order will do just nicely.

2. Have the Department of Education create guidelines for the Summary of Performance documents for students with learning disabilities that include the following: the name of the disability, a summary of the disability from the evaluation, a list of the functional limitations, and a list of the accommodations appropriate for college.

3. Include a short description of the disability in the IEP. Some schools do this already, but making it standard would be extremely helpful.

The RISE Act gets no support from me. No lie. It’s a bad law that manipulates parents at the expense of the students it’s stated to support. The RISE Act manipulates, lies by omission, and obfuscates a process that has been in place since the ADA has been passed. I do not encourage anyone to support it.