Offended by Offence

Should universities accommodate students with Down syndrome?

On July 22, 2010 the CBC repeated the documentary “The education of Ashif Jaffer” about a man with Down syndrome taking a course at Ryerson University last year (  Jaffer was taking the course Writing for Disability Activism and planned to apply to Ryerson’s degree program in Politics and Governance in the fall of 2009.

Jaffer’s attempt to pursue a university degree was not the first.  In 2006 Jaffer was admitted into York University, but had to withdraw in his first year.  This was because York University would not allow Jaffer to write his exams while accompanied by a teaching assistant – the extraordinary accommodation that had enabled Jaffer to graduate from high school as an “Ontario Scholar” (a student who achieves 80% or higher in six Grade 12 courses).  It is asserted that Jaffer needs a teaching assistant during exams to “help get the full answers out so that he can write them down” because Down syndrome has “altered” his brain’s “retrieval functions ” (Daniel Girard, “School Denies Access”, Toronto Star, December 5, 2006, p. D6).

Although it is not clear if Jaffer was accepted in a degree program at Ryerson, the documentary raises questions about the extent to which universities should accommodate the mentally disabled.  It is one thing to allow intellectually challenged people to audit courses and benefit from participating in a university environment; it is another to award degrees that assume that certain skills and learning outcomes have been achieved.

Jaffer’s actual intellectual abilities are difficult to determine because he is always accompanied by his mother, Fran Marinic-Jaffer (or a hired note-taker), and the analysis of his case is influenced by advocates for the disabled who are prone to wishful thinking.  There is no exam in the Writing for Disability Activism course, and Marinic-Jaffer oversees all of her son’s assignments.  Although Marinic-Jaffer insists that her son does his own work, it is hard to take her assertions at face value because of her emotional involvement.  In the documentary, Marinic-Jaffer defiantly states that there was “no doubt” in her mind that, when her son was born, he would go to university.   As a result, she has continuously waged battles against educational institutions, even suing York University for three million dollars, and is adamant that “no” is not an option with respect to her son obtaining a university degree.

While the obsessive advocacy of Marinic-Jaffer could be attributed to parental narcissism, more disturbing is the fawning tone of the documentary, and its assumption that obtaining a university degree is a “right” regardless of one’s abilities.  One is also left with the impression that those trying to uphold academic standards are unreasonable and lack compassion.  Similar responses were received by Leonard Stern, when he commented about Jaffer’s withdrawal from York University in the Ottawa Citizen last year.  According to Stern,

“…parents of children with Down syndrome have suggested that it is wrong to make intelligence a requirement of university.

One mother accused me of ‘IQ’ism.’ One father was furious that I said York University would be devaluing its undergraduate degree by changing the goalposts for Ashif Jaffer. He wrote that I have ‘entirely missed the point of education.’ What matters is that Ashif would ‘command respect for his efforts’ in a way that would bring honour to York University.

Other parents of children with Down syndrome talked about the ‘diversity’ that cognitively impaired students could bring to a university seminar room. It was pointed out that people with Down syndrome are ‘inspirational’ examples for the rest of us. Others argued that ’emotional’ and ‘spiritual’ intelligence — the kinds that can’t be assessed by any exam — are more important than the measurable intellectual achievement which York University is unfairly demanding” (Stern, “Devaluing a University Degree”, Ottawa Citizen, May 9, 2009).

And it is not just parents of Down syndrome children who put forward such arguments.  These sentiments are consistent with the belief that anyone can achieve anything, regardless of the obstacles that stand in their way. They also reflect the postmodern confusion of political equality with intellectual ability.  Recognizing that certain people do not have the intelligence to master the abstract reasoning needed to obtain a university degree has nothing to do with a person’s political rights.  This is a reality, and it is counterproductive to award mock degrees so as to satisfy confused thinking and false hopes.  It is becoming increasingly difficult for qualified students to attend university because of financial restrictions, and the lawsuits, teaching assistants, disability consultants, etc., required in cases like Jaffer’s mean that even fewer resources will be available for those who are actually capable of obtaining a degree.