Princeton protesters want faculty with learning disabilities

Activist groups are demanding that Princeton University do more to support students with “invisible” disabilities following a 20-day hunger strike by a former graduate student.

Rachel Malka Barr announced via Facebook Wednesday that she had ended her hunger strike, encouraging supporters to attend a “big event” Friday afternoon and promising to hold a press conference to further explain the purpose of her hunger strike and her reasons for ending it.

A coalition of disability rights organizations has taken up Barr’s cause, giving it top billing at Friday’s protest, where they also plan to demand that Princeton denounce controversial bioethicist Peter Singer, a professor at the university who has advocated ending the lives of disabled infants.

In addition, they plan to ask the university to “hire faculty members with disabilities,” including a bioethicist, to provide contrast to Singer’s teachings, as well as to create a new department “that promotes the inclusion of all students and recognizes and celebrates diversity, including discrimination.”

Barr, a former PhD candidate at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, told The Huffington Post that the school had approved accommodations for her dyslexia and attention deficit disorder when it accepted her on a full scholarship, but failed to fully honor the pledge after her text-to-speech software malfunctioned on an exam in 2014. Administrators allowed her to retake the test, but allegedly denied her request for an oral exam and neglected to inform the proctor that Barr was entitled to extra time.

As a result, Barr says she received a B- on the comprehensive exam, rather than the B+ that Princeton’s academic standards required in order for her to continue with the program. In September, the university denied her appeal of the grade, and terminated her enrollment several days later.

Barr then took her complaints to the U.S. Department of Education, which confirmed to HuffPost that there is an ongoing investigation into alleged Title VI violations involving failure to provide academic adjustments for people with disabilities.

Prior to that exam, Barr also claims that certain professors and administrators had periodically made dismissive comments about her learning disability, telling her in one instance that “disability is not part of the zeitgeist of Princeton,” and on another occasion instructing her to “put aside the idea that you think differently.”

Princeton, however, disputes both elements of Barr’s complaints, though it is declining to discuss specific details of her case due to privacy laws.

Princeton “has always been sympathetic and attentive to Ms. Barr’s concerns,” university spokeswoman Min Pullan said in a prepared statement, adding, “[w]e believe this matter has been handled fairly and consistently with the established processes Princeton University has for providing all reasonable accommodations for disabilities, and for addressing complaints.”

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