Disability issues: CU Boulder student alleges discrimination, retaliation

Editor’s Note: This is the second article of a two-part series about problems students have accessing disability accommodations at CU Boulder. The first article examined the difficulties of three students with the Disability Services Office.

Brendan Towle has dysgraphia, which means he can’t handwrite more than two paragraphs at a time.

The muscles in his hand lack a sense of pressure, and he can’t control how hard he presses on a page. So when he writes, it creates a slow and steady, dull pain until it’s so overwhelming he’s unable to hold a pencil.

But drawing and writing by hand is mandatory in the Introduction to Field Geology course required for Towle’s geology major at the University of Colorado Boulder. He wasn’t able to meet the course requirements due to his disability, so he dropped the class in May 2021. When he tried to reenroll almost a year later with disability accommodations — an adjustment made to a classroom so people with disabilities can have equal opportunity — he was denied.

Without a way to fulfill the course requirement, Towle said, he’s “effectively banned” from graduating and has faced discrimination and retaliation from his professors in the geology department.

“There have been complaints on how the course design is ableist for decades, and no one has ever really done anything about it,” Towle said. “This isn’t even a new complaint, it’s just the professor that teaches it is unwilling to change it.”

CU Boulder spokesperson Nicole Mueksch said the university can’t comment on specific student cases due to privacy laws. Lon Abbott, the professor in charge of the course design, also cited student privacy laws and said he “cannot comment on the specifics of any particular case.”

“The University of Colorado Boulder and disability services complies with all federal and state civil rights laws,” Mueksch said. “We’re committed to providing all the services we offer without discrimination.”

Towle said the class is “rough even for an able student,” requiring 5 to 10 miles of hiking twice a week and turning in assignments recorded and drawn by hand in the field. When Towle asked disability services and Abbott if he could type notes and use graphic design tools instead of handwriting, he was denied the accommodation.

“My disability itself isn’t all that disabling because in the modern world we have typing everywhere,” Towle said. “It shouldn’t be that big of a deal.”

When Towle initially took the course, he tried to audio record notes in the field with a $100 tape recorder he bought, but he couldn’t hear the recordings over the wind. Even if he could hear it, Towle said, it would’ve taken hours of work to transcribe and all notes are required to be handwritten anyway.

“(Abbott) refused to make the course accessible and refused to allow me to use disability accommodations,” Towle said. “When I tried to go back and forth between the department and disability services, I just kept getting shut down at every turn. No one was willing to budge an inch.”

‘They’re just trying to silence me’

Towle initially took the course in the 2021 “Maymester” and had to drop it. He then filed for disability accommodations in the summer of 2021 and registered to take the course again in the spring of 2022. He said he didn’t hear back from disability services until the following spring about his accommodation request and filed a grievance that semester with the university after being denied the accommodation to type. Students can file a grievance with CU Boulder when they believe their accommodation was unjustly denied.

According to records acquired in a Colorado Open Records Act request, there were 23 grievances filed by students at the university since July 15, 2021, for reasons including procedural errors made by access coordinators and information that was not adequately considered. The university did not keep records of grievances filed before 2021. During the 2023 spring semester, there were more than 4,400 students with accommodations and 2 grievances filed.

Towle said the university claimed they gave him alternative options to fulfill the requirement but that they were not feasible. They told him he could take the same course over the summer at another university, Towle said, and he was not offered any other option to complete the course at CU Boulder.

“On paper, they claimed they offered to allow me to use an advanced field course (during the school year) as a substitute for it, but they won’t let me enroll in an advanced field course without instructor permission, and I can’t get instructor permission,” Towle said.

Towle can’t get instructor permission because he is not allowed to explain the reason to the professor why he needs the class. Abbott and fellow CU Boulder Geology Professor Robert Anderson and sent Towle a letter on Nov. 15, 2022 prohibiting him from speaking to any professor within the department about his disability. If Towle does not follow the expectations outlined in the letter, it said he will be “referred to the student conduct process for possible disciplinary measures.”

“My right to free speech has been taken away,” Towle said. “They’re just trying to silence me instead of helping me.”

Ever since the letter was sent, Towle said, he feels like there’s something going on behind the scenes. He said he’d talk to a professor about enrolling in a field course or pursuing undergraduate research, but then the professor would stop responding. Towle said he asked half a dozen professors about joining a lab group, and they all did the same thing to him.

“I also struggle with depression quite a bit, and at one point I attempted suicide. It’s been pretty rough, I just constantly feel worthless because I don’t have access to the same opportunities that my classmates do,” Towle said.

Towle filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, alleging the letter from his professors was retaliation. The investigation into the complaint was concluded in March, and the OCR concluded there was “insufficient evidence to establish that the university retaliated as alleged.”

CU Boulder did not comment on the letter or OCR investigation.

Now, Towle is trying to figure out how to move forward.

He’s still a full-time student taking classes, but Towle said he “pretty much would be graduating already” if he’d been able to take the introductory geology course.

Towle said there’s no reason the course design can’t be altered. For example, instead of 5 to 10 miles of hiking, he said, other programs at other universities take students to “road cuts,” which are accessible, exposed areas on the sides of roads to see rocks that are normally hidden.

“Hiking is a product of the professor making it what he sees as an ‘authentic’ experience, as is the handwriting and drawing,” Towle said.

Joe Andenmatten, who was the previous disability services director before a recent transfer within the University this month, said a conflict between course design and a student’s accommodation can happen. In those cases, disability services goes through an analysis of the course, the syllabus and how the accommodation would impact how the course has been designed before making a determination.

Andenmatten didn’t say what happened in Towle’s case, citing privacy laws. But, he said denying a request is “a big deal,” and something the office takes seriously. He said students can expect a clear rationale for why the accommodation was denied and alternatives moving forward.

“Accommodations can be denied for a couple of different reasons, and it can be a difficult conversation for sure … (the student) can feel vulnerable, and we try to create a safe, welcoming space to share that information,” Andenmatten said.

Towle said he was never given a reason as to why his accommodation was denied.

Geology in general has a huge problem with ableism, Towle said, and it’s not just CU Boulder. Many programs require six-week field courses at a remote destination, and he came to CU Boulder’s three two-hour credit course program hoping for a better alternative. He’s since heard decades-old complaints that the course is ableist from graduate students passing down stories of former students, he said.

“On paper, (CU Boulder) is supposed to enforce all these anti-discrimination laws, and they just don’t,” Towle said.

‘All we’re really looking for is equity’

Part of the problem with Disability Services, Towle said, is there are not enough access coordinators for the large population of students at CU Boulder.

“If you look at the disability services staff website biographies for all the staff, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that almost none of these people have any kind of medical experience,” Towle said. “So you’re asking someone who just has a bachelor’s degree to make these decisions and they’re being given the power to ignore what someone with an M.D. says about the diagnosis.”

Towle is also the president of the Disability Advocacy Student Union, a group with about 60 students advocating for disability services to do more to help students. He said he initially wanted to avoid registering with the Disability Services office at all because he “heard bad things” from peers and instead tried to push through the pain of handwriting.

Andenmatten said the goal of disability services is to remove barriers to higher education and they want students to come to them with problems.

“I don’t want to discredit the experience of any students in any way, I just know that the work we do is with students in mind and their experience and how can we improve it,” Andenmatten said.

Towle said a lack of resources is the reason disability services hasn’t been able to help him.

“It does seem like a lot of people in disability services want to do more, but without funding for more people and without the regulatory power to enforce accommodations, they kind of can’t,” Towle said.

Towle said he also didn’t want to report his disability to disability services because he’d been discriminated against in the past. When he did report his disability, Towle said, he felt like Abbott and the geology department thought he was trying to gain an accommodation to cheat.

“One of the biggest misinterpretations I see among abled people at CU is that we’re all trying to gain some unfair advantage,” Towle said. “All we’re really looking for is equity. CU keeps claiming they have equity, they sell themselves as a place that’s a progressive haven, but with everything I’ve experienced and everything I’ve seen people go through, it just seems like a false promise.”

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