According to Bruce Pardy, I Shouldn’t be a PhD Student

In the years that I have spent in graduate school, I have not once been subjected to a timed test. All of the work in my program of study is based on either written work or oral presentations. While this isn’t the universal experience of graduate school, it isn’t wholly unique either. Yet, according to a recent piece in the National Post, I probably shouldn’t be a PhD student.

Bruce Pardy, a professor of law at Queen’s University wrote a piece in the National Post which was based on an academic article he had written in the Education and Law Journal (which thanks to my student status I have access to and was able to read). In both, Pardy makes the argument that students with mental and learning disabilities should not be given additional time to write exams.

His argument relies heavily on athletic metaphors and a semantic deconstruction of the word discrimination. In his National Post piece he begins,

Last week at the World Track and Field Championships, Usain Bolt ran his final race. Andre De Grasse, the Canadian sprint star, missed his last chance to beat Bolt because of a hamstring tear. If, instead of pulling out of the race, De Grasse had claimed accommodation for his injury and demanded a 20-metre head start, no one would have taken the request seriously.

He continues later with his definition of discrimination,

To “discriminate” means to distinguish or tell apart. While the law prohibits certain specific instances of discrimination, telling people apart is not illegal but an essential tool for functioning in the world. People discriminate constantly. They choose to be friends with some people and not others. Employers hire better qualified candidates rather than those less qualified. Distinguishing between people even on prohibited grounds is proper if done for a bona fide purpose.

While it is true that discriminate can simply mean to tell apart. His semantic parsing of the word is used to set the reader up for the idea that people with learning disabilities are simply either genuinely inferior students or students who don’t really have an inherent disadvantage at all. It also serves to create a barrier against rebuttals which would call out his opinions for potentially being the potentially illegal, prejudicial kind of discrimination.

He argues that extra time inherently gives students with learning disabilities an advantage based on what he perceives to be the primary intentions of timed testing, “how well they can think, learn, analyze, remember, communicate, plan, prepare, organize, focus and perform under pressure” (quote from the National Post piece). He assumes that additional time for students with learning disabilities fundamentally undermines these things. In his lengthier academic piece, he claims that arguments supporting the idea that additional time level the playing field for students with learning disabilities are false. His argument is entirely premised on the idea that the skills ostensibly being graded are skills that students with learning disabilities simply fundamentally lack and can be faked by the addition of more time. In both the National Post and journal article he references Alicia Raimundo, a mental health advocate who explains that additional time for students with learning disabilities could potentially mean the difference between a C grade and an A grade.

He disingenuously claims in the National Post “Given enough time, many students could put together a paper that would earn a 90”. The thing is that he presumably knows better or at least has been presented with information that contradicts this assumption. His entire argument is based on the idea that given enough time everyone would do better (thought to be clear students with added time accommodations are still subject to time limits). Yet, in his academic piece he actually references a paper that actively contradicts this assumption. He cites Suzanne E. Rowe’s 2009 article in Legal Writing which makes the complete opposite argument. Not only does Rowe support students with learning disabilities being given additional time on exams, she proves why it’s effective and why it doesn’t disadvantage nondisabled students.

Pardy claimed that many students could achieve a grade of ninety given sufficient time, however, Rowe cites a number of studies which showed that this is not the case. That while students with learning disabilities tended to score better after having been given additional time, students without disabilities had no or only minimal benefit from being given more time.

Despite citing Rowe’s article, himself, Pardy does not engage with any of those findings or acknowledge that they exist. Instead preferring to base his argument against additional time on the insinuation that students with learning disabilities simply do not have the skills to succeed. His evidence? That they perform less well on timed exams when held to the same time constraints as their nondisabled peers. He does not accept the idea that students with learning disabilities are going into such exams with an inherent disadvantage and that the process is already tilted against them and that the addition of time for these students levels the playing field. He is however, unable to explain how students who apparently possess weaker analytical skills, weaker skills in preparation for testing, weaker skills in time management, and weaker focus etc. somehow magically gain those skills when given extra time to write the exam.

Rowe is very clear in stating that those students already have those skills and that during studies on the benefits of additional time, those students who were weaker in preparation and analytical skills still tended to do poorly regardless of being given additional time. Ultimately, at the end of the exam, students are still exhibiting those skills regardless of whether they have been given additional time or not.

In the footnotes of his academic piece Pardy notes that on occasion he receives exams from students who have been given extended time about which he observes “[s]ometimes the answers in those exams are significantly longer than any of the others.”

I have invigilated and graded my share of timed exams for both standard timing and those with accommodations. Even in the confines of the standard exam, there will be students who write significantly more than their peers. This does not necessarily translate into better work or a higher grade. In terms of exams that included accommodations including addition of time, they were not all stellar and I have failed students who wrote extended exams because the content of their exam did not merit a passing grade. Pardy does not expand on whether the longer exam was in fact a better exam. The insinuation seems to be that because the student was able to write more content that they somehow did not require the accommodation or that this somehow proves an unfair advantage when it is in fact just an anecdote which lacks context.

He is in effect dog whistling the idea that students with learning disabilities may not deserve their accommodations and may not have learning disabilities at all. He laments the fact that in some Ontario universities (mine included), students with mental disabilities are not required to disclose their diagnosis. They simply require a letter from their doctor outlining the fact that they have medical needs and that those needs require specific accommodations which the doctor then outlines.

He implies that students may be lying about their conditions when he says “Typically, only a medical note is required to get accommodation, even though many clinicians rely on self-reported symptoms to measure impairment.” In his journal article, he is frustrated by the limited power that he and universities have to interrogate the validity of accommodation requests. As though, the university’s nonmedical staff might know more about the reality of a particular diagnosis then does an actual doctor.

His prejudice against people with learning and mental disabilities is clear in his continued support for the accommodations of students with physical and sensory disabilities. Some of whom he seems blissfully unaware might also benefit from additional time as a result of their disabilities.

In the National Post he argues, “Other kinds of disabilities can be accommodated because they are not what the exam is testing. Blind students, for example, may need to access exam questions with a text reader.” Those same students may also require the use of a computer and dictation software to answer those questions. They might also require text-to-speech software to listen to what they have written in order to ascertain that there are no errors in dictation. This is a time-consuming process. Dictation software is notoriously finicky (I would know I am writing this piece using dictation software right now). Failure to properly proofread and edit text written with dictation software might result in submitting something that has sections which are entirely incomprehensible (or in the case of this article, that Bruce Pardy be routinely refered to as Bruce party). Does the validity of the accommodation end as soon as it might require added time? Or is it a legitimate accommodation?

Fundamentally, Pardy premises his argument on the idea that allowing additional time for students with learning disabilities is unfair to students not given additional time. While I have already addressed why this is a weak argument and that students are not actively disadvantaged by having their disabled peers be given additional time, in his journal article Pardy persists, “[s]tudents have a direct and personal interest in the conditions and criteria imposed upon the other members of their class. They have a stake in the fairness of the competition.”

This argument boils down to the idea that students with learning disabilities should not be given additional time because their classmates would think it was unfair. Basically, privileging the prejudicial opinions of classmates over the rights of disabled students.

This is likely why Pardy focused on the false argument that everyone or at least many people might benefit from being given this accommodation. It makes the output seem unfairly weighted in favour of disabled students.

Not only is there no evidence that this is true in the case of granting additional time, it is not true of some other other accommodations where nondisabled students might feel disadvantaged. As an undergraduate I benefited from not only additional time during exams but also having a notetaker. The former accommodation was relatively easily hidden from my classmates as I wrote exams separately. Having a notetaker was not so invisible and I was occasionally confronted by resentful classmates who suggested that I should not be in university or claimed the same argument as Pardy that “everyone would benefit from that”. Again, this is untrue. It has been suggested that students who take their own notes, particularly if they are hand written tend to retain information better. Having a notetaker simply allowed me to have access to notes that I would otherwise not be able to take myself. I was actually still at a disadvantage because I could not access the added benefits of taking my own notes. The injustice was entirely in the perception of different treatment not actually in the outcome of my academic achievement.

Pardy repeatedly claims that allowing students with learning disabilities to have additional time on exams is somehow comparable to allowing an athlete to run a shorter race than their competitors. This is however a false equivalency, it is entirely dependent on the assumption that students with learning disabilities were already on a level playing field with their nondisabled peers and that the accommodation gave them an advantage when in reality the accommodation seeks to erase an inherent disadvantage. Either, that or it assumes that the disabled students should not be taking the exam at all. This seems the more likely of the two as he utilizes the story of De Grasse, an athlete who sat out of a race because of an injury. The implication is clear, if you are unable to perform within the constraints set by the professor, then don’t show up. Pardy would likely dispute this as being his intention but it is a logical conclusion based on his sports analogies. It has to be assumed that students with learning disabilities are either the athlete who was right to sit out or be an athlete with an unfair head start. There is no room in Pardy’s argument for the reality of academic disadvantage that can be controlled for through the reasonable accommodation of extra time.

So, convinced is he, that students with learning disabilities have no inherent disadvantage that in his academic piece he takes the comparison to even more absurd lengths,

If a professor granted extra time on the exam to Caucasian students, the others would obviously have a complaint under the Code. If she gave extra time to five students who did renovations on her house, the rest of the class could well seek administrative law remedies.

He equates racism and potential bribery with an academic accommodation for disability. The only reasonable explanation as to why he feels this a fair analogy is if he discounts the reality and validity of learning disabilities.

He also seeks to limit how people can disagree with him. Through his parsing of the word discriminate. He seeks to suggest that people who would call his opinions discriminatory (in the sense of social disadvantage) are over reacting. He seeks to rob people of the language to express how problematic his opinions are by setting up a scenario where that word no longer means what it is culturally understood to mean and what it usually means specifically in circumstances like this one. He wants people to believe that it isn’t an inappropriate kind of discrimination to openly imply that students with learning disabilities are either measurably inferior or simply fakers seeking an unfair advantage. An advantage that research shows doesn’t even exist. In the unlikely event that a student hoodwinked a doctor into an inaccurate diagnosis and gained extra time. The research clearly suggests that they would not benefit. They would simply be stigmatizing themself.

And if Pardy has done nothing else, it is show what sort of prejudice exists against people with learning disabilities in academia. He also shows just how comfortable some people are in utilizing that prejudice to justify discrimination.

Under Pardy’s argument, I should not have reached the level of graduate student. Much of my undergraduate academic success is as a result of academic accommodation. Interestingly enough, I only sought academic accommodations which did include additional time on exams after the urging of one of my professors who saw how much I was struggling and realized that I could and deserved to do better.

Professors like Bruce Pardy rely on the public acceptance of misinformation. And he is misinforming them. He has read Suzanne Rowe’s work which contradicts the very foundations of his arguments and yet he not only fails entirely to substantially contradict it but ignores the existence of this conflicting information altogether. It is based in prejudice and is only sustained through the widespread acceptance of that prejudice. His argument is based on the acceptance of statements that he has not proven and are maintained through an attempt to sow the seeds of doubt around the validity of learning disabilities and the real needs of people who have them. Not through evidence but through implication.

According to Bruce Pardy, I have potentially illegitimately taken one of a limited number graduate spots from a more deserving (read: nondisabled) student. That I might lack the critical thinking skills to truly deserve to be a PhD student. But then again, I didn’t write and publish an article in a journal defending prejudicial treatment against students with learning disabilities that included a reference to an article that completely contradicted my argument and then pretend that I had not been exposed to those ideas.

 

 

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