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An Update on Eliza: “Why Not Me?”

Readers of The Arc’s blog might remember Eliza Schaaf, the college student with Down syndrome who was removed from her art class at Southern Oregon University just a few hours shy of completion last year because school officials determined that she did not meet academic standards for participating.

Eliza, her family, fellow students and others in the community petitioned the school to allow her to finish the course, but ultimately they declined. Eliza’s family started a blog for her detailing her experiences and allowing others to express support for her. Throughout the spring and summer of 2011, Eliza asked the school to address the issue of her exclusion and garnered support in the form of a petition signed by all of her classmates and a resolution passed by the school’s Student Senate. Although the school eventually did revise some of their policies, they would not respond to Eliza directly.

Although Eliza was disappointed by the outcome of that situation, she has moved on to bigger and better things! Students from Chapman University filmed a documentary about Eliza’s experiences. The film, called “Hold My Hand,” is currently screening at film festivals across the country and will be aired on Southern California Public Television. And, now Eliza is on a speaking tour advocating for inclusion at colleges and universities. In addition to being invited to participate on the keynote panel at the State of the Art Conference on Postsecondary Education and Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities at George Mason University in Virginia, she has conducted workshops with SOU and Chapman University Students and it taking her “Why Not Me?” presentation to a variety of conferences in hopes of creating change in the way postsecondary educational institutions work to include students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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Eliza’s Story: “I Am Not a Disability”

Every student wants to learn. Every artist wants to create. Every person wants an opportunity to be the best they can be. The administration at Southern Oregon University has denied Eliza Schaaf all three.

Eliza graduated high school this year, loves expressing her creativity and decided to take that to the next level in college by enrolling in an art course called Introduction to Ceramics.

“I have always loved learning and I like working with clay,” Eliza says. “I just wanted to take a course and learn the basics of pottery with other college students my age.”

However, university officials have shut her down. Just seven classes short of completing the requirements for the entire course, Eliza was removed from class. University administrators told Eliza, “At this time, Southern Oregon University does not offer a program specifically designed to provide specialized learning opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities. We have determined that even with the support of the accommodation(s) available at the post-secondary level, you are currently not otherwise qualified to meet the academic standards necessary to participate in this course.”

Eliza has Down syndrome and had attended previous classes with the help of a personal assistant. Eliza’s art projects were progressing nicely, and now all she wants to do is finish them.

In her words: “I have never thought of myself as being disabled. I am not a disability. I am a person who loves to learn.”

You’re totally missing the point. That’s what The Arc would like to say to the administration at Southern Oregon University.

It’s not just about what she might reasonably be expected to learn. It’s not just about how much she “gets” out of what’s going on. It’s not just about academic progress. It’s about allowing her to participate in the college experience to the best of her ability, alongside classmates who support her.

What Can You Do?

  • Spread the word via social media.
  • Tweet about it using the hash tag: #4eliza
  • Make a donation to The Arc so that we can help Eliza and cases like hers, directly.