• Shannon Hughes

Can Requesting Academic Accommodations in College Backfire?

I haven’t used academic accommodations for very long, but I’m very familiar with the process. I worked in the office which coordinates academic accommodations for students with disabilities at a state university for three years. I was surprised, given the number of students who have disabilities, that more students didn’t make use of our services. After a while, I realized that there can be a hefty opportunity cost for arranging accommodations. Aside from the gathering documentation and meeting with an advisor to get accommodations approved, many of the most effective accommodations must be arranged on a weekly or even hourly basis. That’s on top of the normal responsibilities any student has to attend class, complete assignments, and attempt to organize their time effectively. It wasn’t until I went through the process myself, that I realized why so few students used our office as much as they could.

The biggest reason students don’t utilize their accommodations is the stigma. There’s no getting around it. To use their accommodations, students are required to identify themselves, not by their disability itself, but as a student who has a disability, whose presence in class requires the instructor to do something different, sometimes many things, that they would never consider doing for their regular students.

Working in the disability office, I got to speak to many instructors who, knowing little or nothing about an individual student with a disability, were up in arms about the unfairness of what we were asking them to do for them.

Instructors aren’t waiters or waitresses who know that keeping your drink refilled, checking to make sure the salad dressing is gluten-free, and returning to make sure your steak is cooked to your liking is going to increase the likelihood of a good tip. They have a course to teach, often one that they’ve taught for years, with templates, schedules, and a grading structure that allows them to keep track of hundreds of students taking the same course each semester. They’ve worked very hard, over the years, to ensure fairness in their grading, coming up with consistent requirements for everyone, if for no other reason, than to protect themselves from accusations of favoritism. That is not to say that there are not fantastic, dedicated instructors, who think creatively and want to provide a powerful educational experience for all of their students, but education is not a hospitality-oriented field and customer the accommodations which are meant to ensure equal-access for students with disabilities, at least from the outside, look like special requests from hard-to-please guests.

Enter: student with an accommodation letter. A student who is one face in a hundred, who might never attract their attention, thanks to the ADA, will mandate that they alter their fine-tuned system. The student might need to take their tests and quizzes outside of class. What about the pop-quizzes that they use to reward students who attend class regularly and pay attention? And if they need to take their exams outside of class, the instructor must provide the exam to the disability services office in advance when they normally spend time editing the exam up until the minute before they give it to the class. The student might have disability-related absences. What about the automatic 10% grade reduction for missing three classes? The student might need additional time for assignments. What about their policy of a 10% reduction in points for every day an assignment is late? A student who lip-reads might need the instructor to face the class while lecturing. What if the instructor has a habit of lecturing while writing on the board with their back to the class?

An instructor whose natural inclination is to consider the entire class when implementing policies and drafting assignments, no matter how open-minded they are, will naturally think of all of the things they require of all of their students when asked to change how they treat a single student. We live in a world where people still consider that a one-size-fits-most approach is as equitable as it gets. And, while they are used to following the policies and procedures of the university that employs them, they are used to relative sovereignty in the classroom, and let’s be honest, we all seize control of whatever we can wherever we can to maintain our sanity.

JR and I both have accommodations which can be an inconvenience to instructors. JR has a service dog, Tye, who goes with him to class. There was a student in his first class who informed the instructor that she doesn’t like dogs and the instructor took it upon himself to inform JR of this in front of the class while the student who complained remained anonymous. The tone was such that JR felt as if he was being asked to leave the classroom. When he said he couldn’t do anything about the other student, the instructor did not respond, but just began his lecture. We don’t know if the student who complained has a disability such as anxiety causing a phobia of dogs or a severe allergy of dogs. The only information JR was given was that she “doesn’t like dogs” as if this were a reason for him not to bring his service animal to class.

My disabilities are unpredictable and can keep me at home for days at a time. I have accommodations which include extended time on assignments and disability related absence. I have an instructor who has structured her entire course so that only students in attendance on any given day will receive the instructions and assignments, and they are due at the end of class. She’s told us that she favors pop-quizzes to reward regular attendance. It’s a digital photography class with no textbook and, so far, no instruction, course outline, or notes available online. Late assignments have an automatic reduction in points and are not accepted at all after two class periods. The instructor has streamlined her course and grading so that attendance and immediate participation determine a student’s grade. I’ll be meeting with the instructor and the director of Disability Services next week to negotiate a workable solution for both her and I, but I know I’ve put her on the defensive, and I’d be lying if I said I have an abundance of positive expectations for the upcoming semester.

So, can requesting disability accommodations in college backfire? Absolutely. Does that mean that students with disabilities should not request them? Absolutely not. We need our accommodations and we have a legal right to them. The more students with disabilities request accommodations and confidently engage with instructors and with the disability services office to see them implemented effectively, the more instructors will become accustomed to considering accessibility when designing their courses. When instructors get the opportunity to work with brilliant, engaged, hard-working students who only need equal access, they will start to think about making their courses accessible by design, so that they won’t have to restructure them when they encounter a student for whom their course is inaccessible.

If you have a disability and you need accommodations for equal access to higher education, you will have to advocate for yourself. You have the ADA and the advocates in the disability services office on your side, but it comes down to you. You have the choice not to request accommodations. You have the choice to request them, get them approved, and then not negotiate their implementation. Though I’d like to say otherwise, there are situations when it costs more in terms of time and emotional energy than it does to white-knuckle it without accommodations and suffer through an assignment that’s much harder for you than your peers. But if you’re doing a mental cost-benefit analysis and you’re on the fence, think about other people with disabilities similar to yours, and what it will mean to them when they encounter your instructor next semester, or the semester after that, when he or she already has a working knowledge of how they can provide accommodations like yours to allow another student like you, to fully participate in the educational experience they want to provide to all of their students.

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