In May 2011, Rachel Barr FES ’11 sat down for her first meeting with Princeton’s Office of Disability Services. Barr, who had recently graduated with a master’s degree from Yale, was set to begin a Ph.D. program at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
During that meeting, Barr alleges that Eve Woodman, the director of the office at the time, told her that disabilities are “not part of the zeitgeist at Princeton.”
Now, Barr — who has been diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder — is openly claiming that Princeton did not provide appropriate accommodations for her disabilities. She says this contributed to her failure to secure the necessary grades to continue as a graduate student at the school. Barr’s student status at Princeton was terminated in September 2014.
Woodman is no longer director of Princeton’s Office of Disability Services and directed all requests for comment to a university spokesperson. On Feb. 4, 2016, Princeton posted a job description in search of a new director, and Woodman’s absence has not been explained publicly.
Barr said that in telling her story, she wishes to open a dialogue with Princeton’s administration and help establish a more welcoming environment on campus for students with disabilities. If the administration is not responsive, Barr said she is considering a lawsuit against Princeton to seek appropriate reparations. She has already filed an appeal of her termination with the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
“The environment at Princeton was not only isolating but toxic,” Barr told the News. “I didn’t feel very safe there because of my disabilities.”
TWO GENERAL EXAMS
Because of her dyslexia, Barr notes at the end of most emails that her messages are transcribed by Siri. The emails sometimes contain spelling mistakes, and Barr said it takes time for her to organize her thoughts.
Barr said she disclosed her disabilities during her application process for Princeton’s Science, Technology and Environmental Policy Ph.D. program at the Woodrow Wilson School. After being admitted, she began school in August 2011 and would have graduated with her cohort this year if not for a series of events that led to the termination of her student status. Specifically, Barr did not meet the requirements for two general exams that all Ph.D. students in her program must pass to receive their degrees — she needed a B+ or higher on one exam and no less than a B- on the other.
Barr alleges that while she asked to have oral components in her exams in place of written ones, her request was denied. Instead, Barr said she was forced by the administration to take a qualitative exam entirely in writing that highlighted her disability.
Barr took her first exam in May 2013 and received a B. As a result, she had to earn a B+ or higher on her second exam. But when she took the second exam in January 2014, the computer with the text-to-speech software that Barr needed to transcribe her thoughts into written words broke down. Her final grade on that exam was a B-, but she was granted an opportunity to retake the exam in May 2014. If she did not pass on this second attempt, her student status would be revoked.
“If you’re trying to write an exam with a broken pencil, and you have no sharpener, you can’t write the exam no matter what thoughts you have,” Barr said to describe her experience writing her January exam with malfunctioning computer software.
Though she again asked for an oral exam alternative, Barr said she was again denied that option.
In addition, Barr said she requested a “stop the clock” option, which would have effectively discounted the time she needed to dictate and transcribe her thoughts during the exam. Her request was granted by the Office of Disability Services, Barr claimed, but the office did not forward that request to the exam graders.
“Neither my examiners nor my department penalized me for stopping the clock in the May 2013 and January 2014 exams,” Barr said. “However, when I formally asked, in advance, to stop the clock without penalty, requesting a disability or religious accommodation, select department and university officials repeatedly thwarted my efforts for accommodation on those same exams.”
According to Judith York, director of Yale’s Resource Office on Disabilities, once a person is identified as having a disability, the institution is legally responsible for providing reasonable accommodations. Each case is unique, York noted, but the law does not require institutions to “fundamentally alter” the essential elements of their educational programs.
Asked about the “stop the clock” option, York said Yale rarely offers this accommodation unless there is some unpredictability involved, such as when students with diabetes experience sugar spikes or when mentally ill individuals undergo panic attacks.
“To us, ‘stop the clock’ means the exam is temporarily halted and the student is still ‘in residence’ taking the time to do what is necessary to return to the test,” York said. “This is pretty uncommon and not done for persons with reading disabilities. Instead, we would appropriate extra time — planning for a specific amount before the person took the test.”
Emails provided to the News between Barr and Cole Crittenden, associate dean for academic affairs at Princeton’s Graduate School, show that Barr was given 72 hours to complete her retake exam. Crittenden noted that other Ph.D. students in the STEP program were given between eight and 36 hours to write a general exam and called Barr’s accommodation a “generous consideration.”
Crittenden directed questions from the News to a Princeton University spokesperson. Barr’s advisor and STEP program director Michael Oppenheimer declined to comment, and Barr’s exam graders could not be reached for comment.
On her May retake, Barr received another B-. Her student status now in jeopardy, Barr decided to appeal her test result, alleging that Princeton administrators had not provided the appropriate accommodations and thus discriminated against her disabilities.
APPEALING THE OUTCOME
During the summer of 2014, Princeton carried out an internal investigation of Barr’s claims as part of the appeal process. On Sept. 8, 2014, Barr’s appeal was denied, and her student status at Princeton was revoked a few days later.
Not willing to stop there, Barr filed an appeal with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in December 2014 and January 2015 respectively.
In October 2015, Dianne Piche, former deputy assistant secretary and special counsel for OCR whom Barr consulted for advice, wrote a letter to the New York OCR director regarding Barr’s case.
“The insensitivity and discrimination to which Ms. Barr was subjected by Princeton University is above and beyond anything I have ever seen in the context of graduate education and an individual with ‘invisible’ disabilities similar to those Ms. Barr has documented and disclosed,” she wrote, in an email Barr provided to the News.
But the EEOC notified Barr that there were no records of her employment as a precept — Princeton’s title for an undergraduate discussion group leader — and as a result, her complaint could not be processed by the EEOC.
When Barr brought her concerns to Princeton’s attention, she was told that the university maintains the right to determine which student records are relevant for retention under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
“Please note that FERPA does not generally require that specific records be maintained, or that records be maintained for a specific period of time,” Princeton University Counsel Hannah Ross ’94 wrote to Barr in an email exchange that Barr provided to the News. “[Princeton’s Office of Disabilities Services] determines what records are relevant to retain, and the period for which they need to retain those records.”
Barr’s complaint with the Department of Education is still under review, but she said a lack of evidence to support an allegation is one of the main reasons why Department of Education complaints are dismissed. Princeton not only deleted her employment record, Barr alleged, but also information related to her disability accommodations.
“[Princeton] is using a loophole in FERPA to scrub my record,” Barr said, adding that without documents showing her employment at Princeton and her request to “stop the clock” during her May 2014 retake exam, as well as proof of her disabilities in general, her case with the Department of Education may be dismissed. “That’s the reason why I’m speaking out and on the record. We need help, and people need to know how to protect themselves.”
Yale administrators also deleted admissions evaluation records last March, following Stanford University’s resolution not to maintain admissions files after several Stanford students requested to view their records using a FERPA provision.
Princeton University spokeswoman Min Pullan told the News that due to federal student-privacy law, Princeton cannot speak specifically about Barr’s case. Nevertheless, Pullan emphasized that Princeton has clear processes for accommodating all disabilities and addressing complaints.
“The Office of Disability Services has a careful and holistic process through which their staff work interactively with students to provide necessary academic accommodations,” Pullan said. “The overwhelming majority of accommodation requests are approved by [the office]. The Office of the Vice Provost for Institutional Equity & Diversity has a well-publicized internal process that gives thorough consideration to any complaints about discrimination of any kind.”
THE ENVIRONMENT AT PRINCETON
Other Princeton students with disabilities interviewed by the News spoke more positively of the general environment on campus.
Rebecca Smith, who is in the same Woodrow Wilson School program that Barr was in, said Princeton’s Office of Disability Services has acted fairly in her case. Smith suffered from a severe brain injury in spring 2011, and she said she often experiences fatigue and a lack of focus as a result. Like Barr, Smith did not pass her second general exam for a Ph.D. degree in the STEP program, but she will be allowed to graduate Princeton with a master’s degree this May.
Smith described the exam accommodations determined by the Office of Disability Services as “fair.” Still, Smith said she would have appreciated more guidance from her examiners and a more standardized grading system. Smith added that because her disability developed during her time at Princeton, she has noticed that students and administrators at Princeton were more comfortable with her before she became disabled.
“The general environment [at Princeton for students with disabilities] is not an open-armed one,” Smith said. “Still, I am not upset at the school. Some administrators have been quite fair with me.”
Sofia Gallo, a junior at Princeton who is legally blind, said she has had a very positive experience as a student with a disability on campus.
The Office of Disability Services has assisted her with everything she needed, even outside of academics, Gallo said. Staff at the office helped her convert books into the proper format, schedule exams with alternative accommodations and navigate campus more easily. Members of student organizations and professors have also accommodated her needs, Gallo added, often without being prompted by the Office of Disability Services.
“I did work with Eve [Woodman] in the past. I don’t know why she left, but she was always responsive to my concerns,” Gallo said. “Overall, I’ve never had any problems at Princeton and my experience here has been positive.”
Colin Lualdi, also a junior at Princeton, said his experience on campus as a deaf undergraduate has been “incredibly positive.” He has worked closely with multiple staff members at the Office of Disability Services, and Princeton has been “very supportive” in providing him with the necessary accommodations, Lualdi added.
Still, Barr said her ultimate goal is for Princeton administrators to stop turning a blind eye to her story and start fixing their mistakes. At the Woodrow Wilson School — named after a former United States president who suffered from dyslexia — disability discrimination is especially galling, she said.
“It’s incredibly ironic and a call to action,” Barr said.
Correction, March 28: A previous version of this article mistakenly described an anecdote given by Rachel Barr FES ’11 as an explanation of her disability. In fact, Barr was describing her experience writing a general exam with a malfunctioning computer software.
April 4, 2017: The last name of a source from the Woodrow Wilson School, Rebecca Smith, has been made anonymous for health and privacy related reasons.