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University responds to allegations of denying accommodation to a disabled student



Vice President of Public Affairs & Communications explains Notre Dame’s perspective

At the end of October, Disability Awareness Month, journalist Kurt Eichenwald published an article with Stat News accusing the University of Notre Dame of refusing to accommodate a disabled student.  According to Eichenwald, James, the alias used for the epileptic student, was admitted to the class of 2022, but chose not to attend because Notre Dame’s housing department would not accommodate his request for a single room.

Eichenwald argued that James would have had to “increase his risk of dying” in order to be a full-time student at the university. Like more than 3 million people in America, James suffers from epilepsy, a relatively common neurological disorder that causes frequent seizures. Epilepsy did not hold James back from being admitted to his top choice university. However, it made his decision a bit more difficult.

According to his neurologist, it would be necessary for James to live in a room of his own due to his common seizures and need for a consistent sleep schedule. Though this request for a single room as a freshman might not seem extreme or abnormal, Notre Dame has a unique policy regarding freshman housing.     

Notre Dame requires all first year students to be paired with at least one roommate. The Office of Student Housing gives multiple reasons for this, including being able, “to develop a shared sense of responsibility and to cultivate a capacity to live with people of all backgrounds.” The university also stresses the importance of living in community with others as a key facet to experiencing a Christian-Catholic education.

Although the American Disabilities Act covers James’ condition and would ordinarily have required the university to make an exception to the housing policy, Eichenwald writes that Notre Dame cited an “ADA loophole,” claiming the accommodation would be an “undue burden” on the university.

Paul J. Browne, Vice President of Public Affairs and Communication at Notre Dame, indicated that the administration wholeheartedly makes efforts to accommodate those with disabilities on campus. He told the Irish Rover, “Notre Dame unequivocally supports students with disabilities.” He made it clear that, “a fundamental component of our support is the integration of these students into our community to include roommates. We do not isolate them.”

Browne told the Rover that he could not discuss any individual student, but said, “Notre Dame has 957 students who have identified themselves to the university as having disabilities that require some accommodation. They include students with epilepsy. We provide reasonable accommodations for these students and want them to flourish at Notre Dame. We have collaborated with Residential Life on 217 housing accommodation requests related to disabilities. These talented students and their stories are inspirations to us all, and we are proud to support them. They are full and valued members of the Notre Dame community.”

Unfortunately in this case, Associate Vice President Ryan Willerton issued a letter indicating that the university was not able to meet the specific needs, so James withdrew from the University of Notre Dame and attended another top university which could meet his requirements.

After relating some of his own personal experience with his epilepsy and education tribulations, Eichenwald called Notre Dame to action.

He addressed the university and implored them to apologize to James, writing, Notre Dame: You know who James is. Apologize to him, in writing, just like Swarthmore did to me. Do not let your ignorance or intentional discrimination damage his life.”

Though Eichenwald claimed that, “Neither Willerton, other Notre Dame officials involved in the decision, nor a school spokesperson returned my messages seeking comment,”

Browne’s comments to The Rover suggest that there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

“From the outset, in making false allegations of discrimination against Notre Dame, Eichenwald said we were either ‘ignorant’ or ‘malicious,’ and no third explanation as a response from us was possible,” Browne told the Rover. “Further, he threatened that if we did not cooperate with him on his terms then he would conduct a bad press campaign against Notre Dame. In his last message, Eichenwald claimed responsibility for bringing down major corporations that failed to cooperate with him, and that too would be Notre Dame’s fate.”

Browne said that the university ultimately chose not to respond to Eichenwald’s accusations due to his record of journalistic malfeasance. “Even a cursory Google search,” he explained, “indicates that Eichenwald has difficulty adhering to standards of accuracy and fairness, as his recent departures from various media outlets demonstrate.” Eichenwald has been sued for libel, accused of bribery, and fired by MSNBC for his scandalous treatment of a young survivor of the Parkland, Florida Shooting. While working at the New York Times, Eichenwald paid $2,000 to the 18-year-old subject of story that he wrote about teen male pornography.

Ultimately, Browne assured the Rover, “each and every decision is made carefully and individually based on the circumstances of each student – consistent with our desire to help our students flourish on campus.”

Sydney is a freshman in the Holy Cross College-Notre Dame Gateway Program and is hoping to double major in Economics and Spanish. Native to the warm climate of Arizona, Sydney does not approve of the frigid, South Bend winter,  but is looking forward to the occasional snowball fight. Contact Sydney at smissigm@nd.eu.

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  • Sebastian Kolaj

    RA’s often have “single” dorms that share a bathroom with another student. Is this not the case at ND? Seems like it would have been a good alternative.

  • ecall

    Eichenwald obviously has serious flaws, but ND did not really explain its refusal to accommodate this student. Of course ND wants its students integrated into the community. What university doesn’t? How is that inconsistent with giving the kid a single room? Was it not possible to place him in a suite with his own private bedroom? It’s hard to believe that there was no reasonable accommodation possible, or that the request would place an undue burden on the university. Further explanation is needed.