Take the case, noted in the New York Times this morning, where the Cleveland Bar Association has sued Brian Woods, an autism father who represented his son in court to fight for a free and appropriate public education.
After Woods prevailed on behalf of his son, the local bar association sued him for the "unauthorized practice of law."
What's an autism parent supposed to do?
We know that the resources for our kids are few, and that what little there is goes to those with the means to afford it — either by purchasing the services outright, or suing to have them provided.
The Times article also mentions that Brian Woods, the non-lawyer father who sued also happens to be an adjunct professor at a community college. Adjunct professors are academe's version of migrant labor — underpaid, uninsured, and without job security. Adjunct faculty members typically teach five times as many courses per year as regular fulltime faculty do, and even then they seldom make even the median income in the country, let alone the sort of income one ought to be able to expect after having five to ten years of graduate education.
Since 1975 instiutions of higher education have been eliminating full time tenure-track faculty positions at the rate of 1% a year. It doesn't sound like much, but when you do the math it adds up. Over the past thirty years, that's a 30 percent decline in fulltime faculty lines. In higher education, we call this "adjunctification."
Instead of hiring fulltime faculty members, colleges and universities have been cutting costs in the classroom and hiring expensive administrators and presidents with a mandate to keep the cost of teaching labor low. If things continue in this direction, chances are that if you're saving money for your child to go to a top university, that your tuition dollars won't even buy them access to the fulltime faculty members, the very faculty whose prestige helps ensure the university's ranking and appeal.
In the case of Brian Woods there is an interesting convergence of autism and adjunctification: a highly educated, probably grossly underpaid individual acted on behalf of his family through the legal system — and won. He skipped the middlemen and women of the legal profession and advocated for his son. Now they want to shut him up — him and other autism parents — so this can't happen again.
Next month the Supreme Court may hear a case in which another autism family — the Winkelman's — had been representing their son in court. A federal appeals court ordered the Winkelmans to hire an attorney, or have their case dismissed. Justice John Paul Stevens issued a stay in the matter, preventing the court from dismissing the family's case.
With legal estimates starting at $60,000, the Winkelmans, like the Woods family, did not have the means to hire legal representation for their son. If they couldn't represent him, then he would be denied due process under the IDEA.
This is something to keep an eye on.
Autism's edges — where the activism never ends.
• • •
For more information on the labor issues in higher education, visit Workplace, A Journal for Academic Labor.
Keywords: autism • Asperger's Syndrome • ADHD • learning disabilities • special education • IDEA - Individuals with Disabilities Education Act • academic labor