Requiring accommodations in post-secondary education can be complicated to maneuver through. I have had experience with the bureaucracy of asking for accommodation at three separate universities and my experiences have been mixed at all of them.
Most universities in my experience have similar policies around delivering accommodations to disabled students. The process goes like this.
1. Get all the necessary documentation to prove you are disabled and in need of the requested accommodations.
2. Draft a letter to all potential professors outlining your individual needs.
3. Send copies of the letters to potential professors and you.
4. Have you approach professors individually to discuss accommodations and acquire their consent.
5. You and your professor sign the letter indicating that they agree to provide accommodations
6. Send copies of the letter to the academic department and the Accessibility Office.
7. Professors provides all pertinent accommodations to their course.
8. Never follow up with you or the professor fails to submit the letter to the necessary people.
The system is based in the idea that self-advocacy is important for disabled students and this is true to an extent. People need to know not only how to make their needs known but also that it is ok to make those requests. What the system fails to do is recognize and address the inherent power imbalances at play in accommodation requests. The professor has significantly more power. They control the student’s grade and learning experience so if a needed accommodation is refused, a student might not feel comfortable reporting it. Particularly if the course is required for the student’s degree (unfortunately some required courses are only taught by one person so the option of leaving isn’t available). Even if the student decides to complain, there is no guarantee that the university will address the issue.
So for the benefit of both universities and disabled students I will describe professors in terms of how they respond to accommodation requests (I haven’t experienced them all personally but where applicable I will give personal context and outcome).
1. The professor who not only accommodates but troubleshoots to make the learning experience a good one.
I had a professor who not only unreservedly provided my needed note taker and made sure the notes were good but also gave me copies of her power points which she did not usually distribute which helped keep the notes in context.
2. The professor who accommodates
These professors happily accommodate as required with no other follow-up.
3. The overzealous professor
I don’t need all my accommodations all the time. Usually indicating that a particular accommodation won’t be necessary for a given glass is sufficient. I one instant though, I had a professor insist that she must not only provide all my accommodations but she also felt they required stricter implementation. I didn’t need a note taker but she insisted that I would have one. Usually a note taker is just another class member who provides copies of their notes either via e-mail or carbon copy. This the professor insisted was not sufficient. She needed to hire me a grad student. Remember this was for an accommodation I didn’t need.
I felt that this would draw unnecessary attention to me so I had the Accessibility Office send her an e-mail confirming that I could in fact decline my accommodations if I saw fit. She calmed down, I Aced the course.
4. The professors who accommodate during the course but fail to make sure that accommodations are available during exams.
I had a class in an auditorium which features only partial desks, with so little space, I couldn’t juggle all my course material with my one good arm. During the semester I was provided a table and chair. I was assured that it would be available for the final exam. It wasn’t and I was forced to choose between writing on the inaccessible desk or delaying everyone while the professor tried to fix the situation at the last moment. I chose the first option and had a very uncomfortable exam experience.
After that I began writing exams separately but even that was problematic as separate exams still need to be supervised. I once had a supervisor be 40 minutes late and when he arrived, he realized that he had forgotten the exam.
These professors are good intentioned but fail to make sure that the accommodations they are responsible for are actually provided.
5. The professors who agree to accommodate but have some personal issue with bureaucracy of the university and don’t want to sign and submit the necessary letter.
The scene: I am alone with the professor in the office, my accommodation letter is out and we have discussed my needs
The professor “I have no problem providing these accommodations, I also think that it is unnecessary to tether students to these forms. I don’t think it’s really necessary to fill out the form, make copies and submit them”
Now I’m stuck in an awkward situation, I can agree and move forward hoping that the professor will honour their stated intention to accommodate or insist that they honour the bureaucratic process and leave the impression that I think they’re dishonest. Not a fun situation. I’ve had this happen a couple of times. I never felt comfortable insisting they sign the form, I was lucky in that they did honour their word but it was unnecessarily stressful.
6. The professor who agrees to accommodate but doesn’t like the standard mode of accommodation. They promise to provide the accommodation in an alternate format, they don’t. Or just agrees to accommodate and then doesn’t
I had a professor who for some reason didn’t like the standard note taking procedure of providing the note taker with carbon copy paper (this allowed them to take a single set of notes and provide the professor with the disabled student’s copy right after class). He promised I would get my notes but was vague on how that was going to happen. Turns out he gave the same line to two other students. We had to harass him for 6 weeks (half the semester) before he got us copies of the notes.
7. The professor who suggests that you should repeat the pre-requisite course before continuing.
On the first day of class about 10 minutes before it was supposed to begin, I told a professor that I was disabled and asked if we could set up a time after class to discuss accommodations. The classroom was already mostly full but she pulled me out of the room into the far from empty hallway and proceeded to tell me–with no context of what my needs were–that it would be in my best interests to repeat the pre-requisite class I’d already taken and excelled at. She specifically cited my disability to justify her suggestion.
I sat through the class in shock. After it was over I reported the incident to the Accessibility Office. They said there was nothing they could do and defended her by saying “She probably doesn’t know any better”
I dropped the class.
8. The non-accommodating professor
I have never had a professor refuse to accommodate outright though the last example might count as I didn’t continue with the class it’s hard to tell. I have heard many stories of professors refusing accommodations for a number of reasons like
- providing the accommodation infringes on their academic freedom
- they think they know the student’s needs better than the student (refusing to use a microphone for a hard of hearing student because they don’t think it will be a problem in the classroom space)
- They are concerned about their privacy (refusing to let students audio record lectures)
- I’m sure there are many others
Universities tend to work on a reporting system so if something goes wrong, students are put in the position of reporting the bad behaviour of people who have power over their academic success. Often the response is to do nothing or fall back on the mantra of “self-advocacy” but effective self-advocy is difficult in a situation with such a huge power imbalance. The situation has to be dire before the university will step in and the first step is usually mediation. As a result many students simply do not report professors who refuse to accommodate out of fear of alienating the person in charge of grading their work.
Self-advocacy works great with people who are receptive to the requests. In cases where there is dissent the power swings in favour of the professor. While this is an issue that is difficult to remedy a good start would be to check in with professors who don’t submit the paperwork as a matter of policy. This way they have to explain themselves without the student having to report an issue. The professor then can’t blame the student for being held accountable.
This doesn’t address all of the issues like professors who submit the paperwork and then don’t follow through but it is a start. To fix the other issues there needs to be a real cultural shift in academia that normalizes the reality of people who learn differently.