When Veronica Soliz's son took the SAT, he was granted an hour and a half of extra time for the entire test through a disability accommodation.
Soliz, mother of an autistic child, said she was thankful he got that, not realizing then that they could have asked for more time.
When she read the news Tuesday that children of TV celebrities and wealthy elites had been granted twice the amount of time her son got for disabilities they allegedly fabricated, she was in disbelief.
In what authorities call the largest college admissions bribery case, wealthy families allegedly paid college coaches and admission test insiders to rig the system and get their children admitted to top-tier universities by faking disabilities and athletic recruitment.
"To see that somebody just paid for what we've been dealing with his whole life, it was just a gut punch," Soliz said. "It's way too hard for us to get what we need and way too easy for people like Felicity Huffman."
Soliz, other parents and advocates fear the scandal could jeopardize what is already a stressful and arduous process for students with legitimate needs to get disability accommodations to level the playing field in the college admissions process.
How students who need accommodations get them
Forms vary depending on disability, so a student who has ADHD must submit different documentation than those with autism.
In many cases, students from public schools have mandated individualized education plans that specify the accommodations they receive daily in their classrooms. The documentation and testing needed to create those plans are submitted to the testing companies to apply for similar accommodations on exam day.
Whether students have an up-to-date plan or must get the documentation before taking the admissions tests, the process of approval for accommodations can be "very adversarial" for families to prove a disability to a testing company, said Matthew Cortland, a disability rights attorney based in Massachusetts.
The breadth of the accommodations in the scheme "was very astonishing to me because it's so difficult to get those kinds of things," said Nicole Jorwic, director of rights policy at The Arc, a nonprofit advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Nadine Finigan-Carr and her son, who has autism, started the process in February of his junior year.
He didn't have an updated plan on record because he attended a private school. The family had to find specialists, sit for the necessary tests and complete the various forms needed to send to the College Board and ACT.
It wasn't until summer that Finigan-Carr's son was approved for the accommodations he needed. By then, he could take the tests only once in the fall, unlike many of his peers who took the tests multiple times to try to improve their scores.
"This was not something that we just got somebody to sign a piece of paper to do," Finigan-Carr said.
Cortland said Finigan-Carr's experience is shared by many families whose children require special accommodations.
"This isn't stuff you're going to get from your family physicians," he said. "This is hardcore psycho-educational testing."
Jorwic said it has become harder for families to be approved for accommodations because of fears that some seek extra time they don't need.
Soliz's son requested extra time, longer breaks, a quiet room because noise can bother him and MP3 audio readouts of questions in word problem and comprehension sections, like the audiobooks he used for school textbooks.
"It's not like we're asking for the world," Soliz said. Though he got extra time and was happy with his score, he was denied the MP3 audio, and Soliz said he may have done better had he had the full accommodations.
She and others said they know that some students don't even bother with requesting accommodations because they fear the process will be too stressful and they won't get what is needed.
Gaming the system
In what's become known as the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, some parents were instructed to apply for extra time for their students, "including by having the children purport to have learning disabilities" to get the documentation needed for the SAT and ACT, according to court documents.
Parents were told their children needed "to be stupid" when taking the tests to apply for the accommodations and parents could use "our psychologist" in the scheme, court records show.
Once their requests were approved, the families would fabricate reasons to take the test at centers that were part of the scam, where proctors would change or give answers or someone else would take the test, prosecutors said.
Parents allegedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for their children's admission to schools such as Stanford University, the University of California-Los Angeles, Wake Forest University, Georgetown and the University of Southern California.
Families with disabled students 'disgusted'
Advocates and parents were stunned and angered by how easily the system was allegedly gamed to get the accommodations that disabled students fight for.
"It is infuriating that these incredibly privileged, wealthy elites weren't satisfied with all the advantages the system is rigged to give them," Cortland said. "The amount of money that these people were paying ... it's sort of unimaginable for disabled families."
For Finigan-Carr, "the first thought was disgust. I was not surprised that people would buy their way into college," she said, but "when I found out that the way they were doing it was by misusing the disability accommodation, I was truly disgusted."
She said the money they spent allegedly to rig the system could have been given to families with children who legitimately need accommodations but can't afford to pay for testing.
These families and advocates fear a crackdown from testing companies and schools in granting accommodations.
The College Board and ACT didn't respond directly when asked whether the process of disability accommodations would change.
"We continuously evaluate and improve our processes across ACT to ensure a level playing field for everyone, regardless of background, ability, or income," ACT spokesperson Tarah DeSousa said in a statement.
"The College Board has a comprehensive, robust approach to combat cheating, and as part of that effort we work closely with law enforcement, as we did in this investigation. We will always take all necessary steps to ensure a level playing field for the overwhelming majority of test takers who are honest and play by the rules," Jerome White, the College Board's spokesperson, said in a statement.
Jorwic explained that the last education plans created for students in high school – often the ones used for accommodations in admissions tests – are commonly used for getting accommodations in college, where the processes vary greatly depending on school.
If high schools take a narrow view of what a student may need for his or her admissions test, fearing that testing companies will think they're being too lenient, those final plans could make it harder for students to get access to accommodations in higher education, Jorwic said.
"I'm afraid that it's going to shine a bad light for the kids who need accommodations when they get to college," Finigan-Carr said. "It's already hard enough to get that (accommodation) letter from professors ... that stigma is just going to get worse."
"Reasonable accommodations exist to level the playing field. They aren't an advantage. They aren't a VIP pass," Cortland said. "When fakers abuse the system, it's always disabled students and people who suffer."
Follow USA TODAY's Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'A gut punch': How the college admissions scandal hurt families with disabled students