To have a disability can mean many things. People who have Down syndrome, autism, a learning disability, bipolar disorder or an autoimmune disease, are hard of hearing, wheelchair users, are deaf, blind, or visually impaired, can all identify their diagnosis as a disability, but to be disabled is something else. A social position rather than a medical diagnosis, for some it means identifying with a culture, but perhaps in one of the most heterogeneous minorities, the singular ubiquitous experience is one of feeling on edge. It is a precarious position when your essential physical or psychiatric being is considered a liability.
Unfortunately, universities have a long history of intentionally excluding people with disabilities. The College Board has been criticized for its lack of accessibility. Private universities were among the most prominent anti-ADA lobbyists. The SAT has roots in eugenic principles. Through the 1970s, Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges documented each freshman class with nude posture portraits in order to link stature to moral character and intelligence. To this day, students file lawsuits of discrimination against universities including Miami. Although not all disabled people will use accommodations in the classroom, many do, and the process of obtaining documentation alone can be exhausting, let alone justifying needs to multiple professors on an individual basis.
Unfortunately, “Why I Dread the Accommodations Talk,” an article by Gail A. Horstein recently published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, adds to the tradition of skepticism surrounding disability in higher education. The author apparently believes “accommodations forms” are too standardized and “often have little to do with” students’ needs. However, the benefit of a form lies in mitigating the burden on the disabled student to convince between four and seven faculty members each semester of both their academic competency and their genuine need for accommodations.
As with any “The ___ Talk,” the accommodations talk can be uncomfortable for both parties. However, a discussion of civil rights is not equivalent to “the Sex Talk,” and it is condescending for this author to stigmatize it in the same way. In a discussion with a pseudonymously named student, Lee, the author’s trepidation about accommodations comes to a tonal climax with Lee “thrusting the form at [the author].” (I find it difficult to imagine this student did any more than hand the form across a desk). Then, when Lee mentioned her need to be absent if she experienced a panic attack, the author responded, “well, I hope that doesn’t happen.” In exaggerating Lee’s body language and catastrophizing her absence, this author displays a kind of emotional reasoning that seems ironic when dismissing a student’s need to miss class due to a panic attack. It also makes Lee’s civil rights seem like an aggressive and unwelcome imposition on the author’s curriculum. Her response is unhelpful and demoralizing.
Although the author later writes, that “it’s not our job to make [students] conform to some stereotypical role,” this is exactly what she encourages for Lee. She invalidates Lee’s self-determinative potential to make up work at her own pace and function outside of a normative role. Even worse, she later details the “serious” circumstances which could result in an extension for an assignment. Those include “coming down with the flu,” but not a chronic health issue, “Or having an exam the morning after a distressing break-up,” but not having an exam the day you are experiencing a panic attack. It seems that an accommodation form and a diagnosis stigmatize Lee and make her, if anything, less eligible for accommodations in her professor’s eyes.
One of the most common results of stigmatizing disability is viewing the problems of people with disabilities as less than those without disabilities. After all, if disability is not an outright character flaw, this author does at least perceive the need for accommodations as a failure to work hard enough to cope with or overcome one’s disability.
For example, I needed extra help in a high school class because of how often I was absent, but when I approached my teacher, he said I needed to “make it a priority” to attend class before he worked with me after school. In fact, he often stayed after school to help students but refused to work with me because of my absences. Perhaps he thought if he withheld help, I would rise to his standards, but I couldn’t and I never did.
Thus, the concern with professors like this author who would rather offer “coping skills” than accommodations or modifications, is that if a “coping strategy” seems to be working in her class, a professor tends to assume unilateral success rather than sacrifice on the part of the student. In fact, I have modeled the compliant disabled student rising above their weaknesses—for that is what this author assumes disability to be—in one class, and been a struggling, exhausted student in another.
Often, it’s difficult for a professor to see in three hours’ weekly interaction that turning in work on time or attending one of her classes may look like I’m coping or rising to high expectations, but in fact, I prioritize my work by how understanding I expect my professor to be. The most unaccommodating professor’s work gets done first, and I put off the work for the professor who will grant me an extension. This isn’t a “coping strategy;” this is bare self-preservation.
Ultimately, individual interviews and official documentation thoughtfully inform the “accommodations forms,” and it is not the professor’s directive to encourage students to “learn to manage on their own.” Ultimately, the professor is neither a therapist nor an accommodations counselor, and despite the variability of many disabilities, including psychiatric conditions, autoimmune diseases, chronic pain, fatigue or migraines, federal law nevertheless guarantees accommodations. Therein lies the benefit of standardization. A student is spared the dubious ethics of a discussion about which accommodations they “deserve” when her success in the class may or may not depend on whether they acquiesce to their professor.