Self-advocate fights for supports to finish college

Young adult white male in hoodie sweatshirt, smiling.

James Lee is a baseball player and an Augsburg University student. He has been working toward a Bachelor of Science in physical education and his goal is to eventually teach at a small-town elementary school in central or northern Minnesota. Lee has autism, ADHD and dyslexia.

Preparing for Success

Lee quickly found resources to help him reach his goals at Augsburg University. With medical documentation of his disabilities, he met the qualifications for accommodations for classes. He was given an adviser to set up accommodations and he checked in once a week for ongoing support. He has worked closely with Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS) and the disability services at school throughout his education.

“VRS has helped me with a lot of things,” Lee says. “I always knew finances would be part of my struggle. Some things they wouldn’t cover, even though I was eligible for financial help. That’s when I reached out to a lawyer.”

Anne Robertson is a staff attorney with Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center (MDLC). She worked with Lee several years ago, asking the agency to cover tuition at Augsburg, which is a private university. She argued that Lee couldn’t attend a state university for his chosen degree because he wouldn’t have the needed disability supports to help him succeed. VRS agreed to the requested variance and paid a higher percentage of tuition than their policy usually allows, opening the door for Lee to pursue his goals at Augsburg.

“My lawyer was amazing,” Lee says. “She was always on top of things, and she knew what she was doing. Once MDLC was involved, VRS agreed to cover everything with financial criteria based on my mom’s income.”

New Challenges with COVID-19

When COVID-19 hit, Lee faced new challenges. He moved out of the dormitory and back in with his mother to save money and stay close to his support system. His move from the dorm prompted VRS to change their assessment of benefits and they shifted the amount Lee would have to contribute. The difference came to thousands of dollars for his final semester. Lee would have to drop out of school or get a job, which he could not do while keeping up with his studies and student teaching. Just when the accomplishment of a degree was so close, the change created an impossible situation.

“For students with disabilities, those disabilities affect every area of their life,” Robertson says. “James made particularly good use of the resources available to him. But every step of the way, he had to maintain a whole support structure in place so he could succeed and move on to each new level. There are so many rules about what you can and can’t do. If someone using disability services makes a wrong move, they can be cut off or might owe thousands of dollars in an overpayment.”

Securing Financial Assistance

Robertson contacted VRS and presented legal and practical arguments to grant another variance. Given that VRS had already invested so much in helping Lee achieve his career goals and become financially independent, it made no sense to pull support when he was so close to his degree. Within 24 hours of Robertson filing the request, VRS granted an exception to the policy. They agreed to pay Lee’s tuition at the same rate as they had for the last several years.

“Disability narrows options, expectations, and opportunities,” says Robertson. “Folks are navigating every minute of everyday things the rest of us take for granted. I was impressed with the disability services at Augsburg and with James’ determination in marshalling his resources. He’s very self-motivated, he has a vison, and he has a comprehensive plan. He has worked throughout his college years to keep all parts of that plan in place and move things along.”

Lee is now finishing his final semester at Augsburg. He is student teaching and moving toward certification to teach elementary school physical education. He hopes to start teaching in the Twin Cities and then move north.

“I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead,” says Lee.