MAHOMET – When Vicki Niswander thinks about all the ways her developmentally disabled daughter, Annie, has amazed her over the years, there's one occasion that especially stands out in her memory.
It was back when Annie was an eighth-grader, and part of her homework was to describe in three sentences what happens in the first scene of Shakespeare's "Hamlet."
Niswander, of Mahomet, still remembers her delighted surprise when Annie handled it without Mom's help.
Hamlet was a king, Annie told her. He died. And he turned into a ghost.
To think, Niswander marvels, that she and a teacher had discussed the possibility of having Annie sit out "Hamlet" because it might have been incomprehensible for someone with Down syndrome.
Ever since then, Annie has loved Shakespeare's plays, Niswander said.
"Had we pulled her out before she even tried, we wouldn't ever have known that," she added.
Now 22 and graduated from Mahomet-Seymour High School, Annie Niswander wants to continue her learning at Parkland College – but she can't get around a stumbling block she's hit in Parkland's admissions process.
While Parkland admits any high school graduate who can benefit from college-level instruction, the college does require comprehensive assessment testing for students who haven't taken a standard college admissions test, in order to place them in appropriate level courses.
Niswander applied to audit a child-development class at Parkland. But she was turned down because – while she can read – she couldn't score high enough on Parkland's reading assessment to take a college-level course, her mother said.
The Niswanders filed a discrimination complaint against Parkland with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. But in a decision in May, that office sided with the college, stating it found the evidence insufficient to support a charge of discrimination based on Niswander's disability.
The ruling stated that while the college is required to modify certain procedures to avoid discrimination against a student with a disability, it is not required to lower its academic standards to let Niswander take a course – even on an auditing basis – if she can't read at the required level.
Parkland's vice president for student services, Carol Steinman, declined to discuss an individual student, but she did say the college requires students to meet class prerequisites – even if they only want to audit a class – because students who can't read, write or do math at a required level can become frustrated and potentially fail.
"The philosophy of the college is that we want students to be successful in whatever course they're taking," she said.
Niswander was allowed to join Parkland's chorus, but the college otherwise proposed that she take a remedial reading course, repeatedly if necessary, until she can pass it. The college otherwise steered her to noncredit courses and the Red Cross' baby-sitting class for young teens, Niswander said.
Vicki Niswander said she went up the administrative ladder at Parkland, pleading with officials to waive the reading assessment test on her daughter's behalf and later, after Annie took the assessment, to waive the reading requirement to let Annie audit the class.
She said she would even take the course with her to help her through it, but college officials insisted the requirements are never waived.
Evelyn Brown, learning disabilities specialist at Parkland, said the college accommodates students with a wide range of disabilities – providing such services as special equipment, extended time for tests, note-takers, typing services and special seating. But she and others can't waive prerequisites for individual courses based on a student's disability, she said.
"Parkland would talk to any student that comes through the door with a disability," she added. "But all students have a process they must go through."
Vicki Niswander says Parkland's position might fall within the law, but she doesn't agree that it's right.
It's not as if her daughter is seeking college credit for the course, or asking to take a seat away from a more qualified student at the University of Illinois, where admission is competitive. Parkland is a tax-supported, community college supposedly open to everyone, she said.
"My feeling is that if she wants to learn more things, if she wants to participate, why should anyone deny her the opportunity to do that?" Niswander asks.
School for Annie
Annie, who loves sports and theater, was an attentive student in school when she was growing up, her mother said. And while she tends to be quiet and shy around strangers, she made friends and took part in extracurricular activities.
She was a Girl Scout. She sang in the chorus at Mahomet-Seymour High and often had small parts in the school's theater productions – something she loved so much she even memorized the scripts, Niswander says.
Annie Niswander took part in the graduation ceremony with her class at age 18, then stayed on at high school for another three years in the adult program offered to students with developmental disabilities.
Since then, she's been working at Developmental Services Center's workshop in Champaign, where she does such work as stuffing envelopes and filling boxes with product parts for local companies.
But back at home in her bedroom, where the walls are covered with posters of favorite athletes and rock singers, she keeps a cherished Parkland College catalog handy.
And in that catalog, Niswander has circled six classes in red – all classes she longs to take – in child development, earth sciences, health careers, hospitality industry, music and theater.
Her mother says child development has been at the top of her daughter's list because she loves small children and wants to work at a day care center.
At least one local mother can attest to the fact that Parkland does allow students with developmental disabilities to take classes for which they meet the prerequisites.
Liz Lindemann of Champaign said her 20-year-old daughter, Laura, who has Down syndrome, is taking a child-development class at Parkland after taking two basic level English classes and taking a basic reading class along with child development.
Lindemann said Laura, 20, is enjoying college and gaining some additional independence, but she and her husband, Mike, are taking it one semester at a time. It's taking a lot of help from both her and Parkland to get Laura through the coursework, she said, and she understands not all parents can take the time to do that.
"She wanted to be like her peers and go to college, and we've tried to make that happen," she added.
Niswander, who has a master's in special education and works as project coordinator for the state's Parent and Educator Partnership, said she doesn't think Parkland is deliberately trying to keep her daughter out of college. But she does think Parkland's position is symptomatic of how society can treat people with disabilities in general.
"People assume if you have a developmental disability, you don't want to learn anything but basic life skills," she said. "There is more to the quality of life than just functional skills."
Kathleen Williams-Hjort, president of the Down Syndrome Network of Champaign-Urbana, said it's a shame a young adult with Down syndrome can't take the class she wants at Parkland.
But, she adds, people with this disability are often excluded from things in the community.
"People don't realize that their abilities are so varied," she said. "They hear the diagnosis of Down syndrome and just assume they're not going to be able to perform as well as an able-bodied person."
Niswander harks back to when the light bulb clicked on for her – when she realized that if Annie could grasp the opening scene of "Hamlet," there was no telling what else she might be able to learn, given the opportunities.
"The choices we make for people with disabilities in our community are handicapping their choices," she said.