Should disability law force a college to waive required math classes?

An art student at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont. has sued the school in federal court because she wants her degree even though she has flunked two basic math classes required to graduate.

The student, Hannah Valdez, wants a federal judge to force the school to allow her to substitute two non-math courses for her degree instead, reports The Montana Standard, a newspaper out of Butte.

Donald Harris, the attorney representing Valdez, says his client has a throng of disabilities including Asperger’s syndrome, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He says she also has dyscalculia—a difficulty understanding numbers and doing arithmetic that is more or less analogous to dyslexia.

Consequently, Valdez’s lawsuit claims, she has real trouble with things like algebra, trigonometry, statistics and calculus.

“They don’t understand her disability,” Harris said, according to The Standard. “The stress and anxiety that Hanna feels when she is trying to be successful with math classes affects her other studies, as well.”

Valdez, who wants to be a graphic artist, gamely tried to pass the math classes but did not succeed. She requested to substitute non-math courses in the spring of 2012. Rocky Mountain College officials denied the request.

The lawsuit notes that officials have admitted that Valdez was allowed to matriculate at the school despite an SAT math score in the bottom five percent of all SAT takers. It’s unclear if Valdez understood the school’s graduation requirements before enrolling.

The suit claims negligence by Rocky Mountain College and discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was successfully transferred to federal court earlier this month.

Harris, the lawyer, notes that the school allows students to substitute for required courses in certain circumstances, such as course cancellations. He also suggested that Valdez doesn’t need art.

“Nobody will say these general education classes are essential to a degree in art,” he asserted, according to The Standard.

The suit claims that Valdez will end up with substantial student debt but nothing to show for it if she can’t graduate because the college makes no accommodation for her disability.