Several Boston University students claimed Disability and Access Services (DAS) — the office which evaluates and recommends academic accommodations to students with learning or psychiatric disabilities — is riddled with excessive, systemic obstacles for students seeking aid.
Students also described Lorre Wolf — DAS director and the University’s 504 coordinator — as someone who was suspicious, dismissive, derisive and rude in her relationship with students requesting accommodation or permission to bring an Emotional Support Animal to their BU residence.
Allegations also include reports that the DAS and Wolf denied what students argue were reasonable accommodations, asking some to be retested for disabilities personal medical professionals had already diagnosed.
“They’re not there to help. They’re there to fight me every step of the way. I don’t trust them,” one student said.
Some of the students who spoke to The Daily Free Press asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation from the DAS, adding negative interactions with the department have led to difficulties obtaining accommodations in the past.
Wolf is responsible for meeting with students with learning and psychiatric disabilities and reviewing their medical evaluations. She wrote the DAS is required to balance the interests of students with those of the University, and can not accept every student’s accommodation request.
“We sometimes have to dig deep to find the merit of some requests,” Wolf wrote in an email. “As director that role falls to me, so I am usually the target of student displeasure when we simply can’t approve something.”
The right to reasonable accommodations for students at privately funded institutions, such as BU, is guaranteed under Title III of the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Zach Rossetti, an associate professor of special education at the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, said the term “reasonable accommodations” is anything that removes barriers preventing equal access to education without fundamentally altering the course or creating an undue financial or administrative burden.
According to a well-informed source who spoke to The Daily Free Press, for BU to deny requests for “reasonable accommodations” arguably constitutes a civil rights violation. Students who have issues with the DAS should first file a grievance with the office or, as a last resort, file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, the source said.
Some students have brought lawyers into proceedings with BU following difficulties receiving accommodations. One filed a Section 504 grievance against the University for violating legal precedent.
“I truly felt that I was being discriminated against,” a student said.
Wolf wrote most students’ requests to DAS are met without issue, but added she understands “it’s very hard to ask for something” students feel they need, and “harder to hear” when the request isn’t met in the way they envision.
“I am always sensitive and supportive as we navigate this process with our students,” she wrote.
The student who filed a Section 504 grievance against Wolf said they requested an exemption from the foreign language requirement, a notetaker and priority scheduling. DAS denied all three requests.
“Why are things like priority scheduling denied for students with physical disabilities?” the student later wrote in an email. “It doesn’t matter to DAS whether or not it is actually fair or not. It matters whether it appears fair.”
The issue of campus accommodations dates back to a 1997 class-action lawsuit, Guckenberger v. Boston University, brought by BU students with ADHD, ADD and learning disabilities. Six students claimed BU discriminated against disabled students for reasons such as establishing “unreasonable, overly-burdensome” criteria for qualifying as a disabled student.
Former BU president John Westling testified in court proceedings at the time, admitting he fabricated anecdotal accounts of a student he dubbed “Somnolent Samantha” to demonstrate how lazy students often abused disability policy.
“I wanted notetakers but [DAS] wouldn’t give it to me because they said that would make me lazy,” said Marisa Dobbins, a senior at the Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, adding she additionally applied to get time and a half on tests in the Fall of 2020.
It took the entire Fall semester for Dobbins to receive the accommodations she requested after being diagnosed with autism, she said.
The court ruled BU could not require students who had been evaluated by medical professions be retested in order to be eligible for reasonable accommodations.
One student said, despite having an ADHD diagnosis since second grade and getting reevaluated every five years, Wolf wanted them to get another psychological evaluation.
“I remember the gist being ‘Unless you have that test through BU, you’re not getting accommodations,’” the student said.
In an email, Wolf wrote doctors’ notes “may or may not be sufficient” depending on factors including the credential of the provider and whether it shows a connection between a disability and the accommodation, adding it is a “case by case, highly individualized process.”
“We do our best to work with whatever the student can provide and strategize with them to reduce the need for expensive testing,” Wolf wrote.
Ry Beloin, a second-year graduate student in the College of Fine Arts, said Wolf doubted the credentials of the psychologist’s letter she presented to the DAS in a Sept. 1 meeting, allegedly saying at the time, “I don’t even know that this is a real practitioner,” though allegedly declining to call the office’s number because she didn’t “have time for that.”
In an email, BU spokesperson Colin Riley wrote it is “not uncommon” for DAS to request additional material before making a decision on students’ accommodation requests if the documentation is outdated, unclear or incomplete.
“They want you to get this very specific type of testing that costs thousands of dollars,” said Natalia Gonzalez, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s really hard to meet the conditions that they set forth to get accommodations a lot of the time because they want a lot of documentation that can be really hard to have if you don’t have a lot of money.”
One anonymous student said, even after a psychologist diagnosed her with ADHD and recommended they receive accommodations, Wolf denied their requests for time and a half and a reduced-distraction environment for exams.
“She said that I didn’t need accommodations,” the student said. “So basically, this woman told me that I wasn’t disabled enough to get accommodations.”
The student said they were eventually offered 25% additional time on exams and a quiet room to take exams in, but only temporarily until they could be evaluated by a therapist or psychologist to confirm their diagnosis.
Afterwards, they said they decided to have a meeting with dean of students Kenneth Elmore to explain their situation.
“Less than 24 hours later I received an email with accommodation letters for each of my classes with all of the original requests that I had made,” they said.
Elmore said he can work with students to solve their specific problems, but DAS is making appropriate decisions about accommodations based on student requests.
“I think the disagreements are going to be there,” Elmore said. “There are going to be disagreements about the outcome.”
Some students, all of whom met with Wolf in regards to their disabilities, claimed she was “brusque” and “dismissive” in her demeanor. One student recalled their experience asking for permission to bring an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) to her BU residence “terrifying.”
“It was a day that I felt incredibly horrible by the time I got home,” Beloin said. “By definition, everyone [who visits] the office is someone who is of higher vulnerability for difficult things.”
Wolf declined to comment on individual student situations.
According to the DAS website, students requesting an ESA should meet with DAS and submit a “Provider Psychiatric Disability Verification Form” and a “Student Acceptance of Responsibilities for ESA In Housing Form” 60 days before the beginning of housing assignments in order to be granted permission.
Beloin said she submitted her request for housing accommodations, including her support animal, Aug. 26 and met with Wolf Sept. 1, which is after housing assignments for the semester were released.
In the presented letter, Beloin also said her psychologist outlined her need for a support animal due to depression and anxiety. Wolf allegedly called it a “generic ‘dear landlord’ letter” and did not accept it.
“She picked up the letter and she laughed, it was like a scoff, and she threw the letter back down toward me onto the desk and she said ‘I’m not taking this,’” Beloin said.
Beloin said Wolf went into detail describing how Beloin would likely be evicted from BU housing if she had her support animal without the correct paperwork.
“As she’s describing to me, in detail, about how terrified I should be of being imminently evicted, on her screen, and on the letter on the desk in front of her, is all this detailed information about my clinical diagnosis of depression and debilitating anxiety,” Beloin said.
Riley wrote that because BU is a “no-pet” campus, the DAS carefully considers all ESA requests, adding it is important for students to follow all the procedures laid out on the website.
“Any student who does not complete the entire process is violating the terms of their [Residence Life Agreement], and that can theoretically include losing their housing,” Riley wrote.
Gonzalez said Wolf would act like she “didn’t believe” she had the conditions outlined in the provided documentation, in conversations she had with her when trying to get ESA approval last year.
Because DAS requires students to apply for an ESA a semester ahead of time, and it was often difficult to find appointments, Gonzalez said they believe the office’s current system is “inherently inaccessible” to students, many of whom often have urgent needs.
“It’s pretty much impossible to do it the way that they laid out for you unless you can have someone else take care of the animal for you and the need isn’t urgent,” Gonzalez said.
After their negative experience with DAS and Wolf, Gonzalez said they did not feel safe in BU housing and decided to move off campus.
“I felt like at any moment they would just kick me out for not having one correct document or not updating things exactly on time because they were constantly very threatening,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez believes Wolf’s conduct is “actively harmful” to students with disabilities.
“I do think that Lorraine Wolf is abusive of her power over disabled students,” Gonzalez said.