Doing Better with Disability Accommodations in the Higher Ed Classroom

Whether as a student or an educator, every semester that I’ve spent in the classroom has given me an opportunity to think a little bit more about the issue of disability in the classroom.  I’ve watched instructors handle it poorly, I’ve seen them handle it well.  I’ve listened to the complaints of fellow students about dismissiveness, hostility, inconsistency, and inappropriate demands for medical details from professors.  I’ve certainly heard a few from fellow instructors about students abusing disability accommodations to try to get out of doing assignments and attending classes, and once in a blue moon even to try to bully instructors into grades changes.

One would like to think that disability accommodations in the college or university classroom would be a simple matter of a student presenting documentation of a disability and asking for particular reasonable accommodations to be made, and the instructor doing their best to make them.  This is how it has largely been presented to me in teacher training seminars and in disability accommodations talks: a matter-of-fact transaction between a student and an instructor, both seeking the same goal of increasing accessibility to education and using clear, consistent, dependably functional channels for negotiating that access.

This is not always how it works.  Students seeking accommodations are forced to reckon with the potential for stigma or bias that it creates to seek such a thing.  Instructors are pushed to reconsider their classroom strategies, rethink their pedagogical default settings, and disrupt their own thinking about how they should be doing their jobs.

Accommodations may also, even when approached with the best of intentions by all parties, be not entirely adequate. Even a superlative notetaker cannot guess exactly which bits of a class discussion another person might choose to emphasize in their notes. An ASL interpreter can only interpret one person’s words at a time even when the discussion gets heated and many people are chiming in.   In many ways trying to improve educational access for people with disabilities is as much an art as it is a set of policy decisions one can follow.

In my experience, making decisions about student disability accommodations in my classrooms has required five things, none of which have been part of my explicit training as an educator.  Thus I list them here, in the hope that they will be helpful to my colleagues and to students with disabilities who need to know what they should be able to expect from their instructors.

Acknowledging a student-instructor relationship as separate and distinct from the patient-medical provider relationship, and respecting the difference.  Students with documented disabilities have, by definition, an existence as patients: being a patient is how one acquires the diagnosis necessary for documenting the existence of a disability.  But the educator is not the student’s medical care provider.

Instructors may be curious about the nature of the diagnosis that has occasioned the provision of a disability accommodation.  It is human nature to wonder what someone else’s disability or difference is, what it is that puts them in this special category of persons entitled to accommodations.  But curiosity doesn’t equate to a right to know what diagnosis a student has been given, or what therapies have been prescribed.

In fact, as an educator, you are entitled to none of that information and, should a student volunteer some, you are entitled to precisely zero opinions about it.  This includes second-guessing whether a particular diagnosis “deserves” or “requires” a particular accommodation that has been allotted to the student: if someone who is the student’s medical provider has determined that the student needs that accommodation, our opinions as educators are irrelevant.

If a student does volunteer a diagnosis or other medical information, respect that you have been taken into confidence about what may be a deeply personal and vulnerable matter, and respect their privacy.  If they don’t volunteer, don’t ask.

On a closely related note, don’t out your students.  Sharing a student’s status as having a documented disability is a violation of privacy, just as a physician sharing your medical records would be.  The individual — and not their doctor or their instructor — should always be allowed to choose whether and how they disclose their disability status or any other health status.

Maintaining clarity about the instructor’s role in determining appropriate accommodations.  This is a subset of the above, part of acknowledging that your relationship with a student is unrelated to a student’s relationship to their healthcare provider(s). In many institutions, student requests for educational accommodations are channeled through an office for disability accommodations for precisely this reason.  The instructor’s job is not to assess which disabilities deserve accommodation or which accommodations are appropriate for a specific disability.  There is no reason to blur the line between the person whose job it is to educate (the instructor) and the people whose job it is to indicate what will make it easier for the student to receive education (the student, and their physician(s) or therapist(s)).  The instructor’s job is to figure out how best to manage student requests for accommodation in order to facilitate the students’ access to education and ability to learn.

Maintaining clarity about what the bottom line is for your classes: what do you expect your students to get out of your class?  Like most instructors, I often design classes with the assumption that all my students will be equally capable of performing all of the assignments, equally able to physically be present for all the classes, and equally able to negotiate the physical and emotional demands of both classroom presence and assignments.  But these assumptions don’t always leave enough room for some of my students.  This is unfair to my students with disabilities.  It’s also unfair to me and the rest of my students, all of whom by rights ought to have the benefit of sharing a classroom with a wide diversity of students with a diverse set of backgrounds and lived experiences.

Thinking carefully about what the learning goals are for the class helps me to gauge how best to respond to disability accommodations.  It might, for instance, help me identify which assigned readings are core readings and which might be less crucial, and thus possibly optional for students with reading-related disabilities.

Evaluating what I expect students to get from doing individual assignments might allow me to decide that an exercise in interpreting a visual image such as a photograph or archival document is not crucial to a primary class goal and thus a student with visual disabilities might be exempted from doing it.  Or perhaps I will determine that this exercise is crucial to what I want my students to learn, and I need to figure out if there might be a good way to adapt the assignment to the abilities of the student. This is a great time to talk to the disability accommodations office.  They can help with brainstorming and strategy as well as resources.

One of the things I consider a crucial bottom line for the functioning of my classes is continuity and predictability.  Therefore I typically indicate to students both orally and in the syllabus that there is a cutoff date (usually 3 weeks into the semester) past which I will deal with new accommodations requests only on an emergency basis. Everyone in my classroom, including me, deserves to be able to lean on dependable class routines wherever possible as we dig into the bulk of our semester’s work together.

Being willing to be creative and work with the student in choosing the best accommodations for that student.  Meeting with a student to discuss accommodations is an important part of the process of creating access.  Such a meeting is the place where an instructor might be able to ask a student for direction, offer some of their own thoughts about accommodations options, or both.  Discussing available options, and being flexible and willing to help the student gain access to the tools they believe will be most helpful to them, is always appropriate.  So is talking through planned accommodation(s) so that both of you have a good idea of what they will look like in practice.

Let’s say a student is requesting accommodation because their disability means they cannot always physically attend class.  Let’s further stipulate that the instructor has designed a class in which reading and discussion are the backbones of the class: the instructor gauges students’ completion of the reading assignments by their participation in class discussion, and also grades them on the quality of their contributions to the discussions.  Depending on the student’s sense of themselves and their needs, the two of you may conclude that a student who could not be in the classroom consistently could be accommodated with, for instance, occasional office hours or even phone meetings to check in and make sure the student is reading and understanding those assignments.  But perhaps the student would also want to know if it is possible to have audio recordings of classes made and sent to the student, enabling them to hear the discussion when they can’t be in the classroom.   As an instructor, this is a request that you can take to the disability services office on your campus, and find out what resources exist to make this happen.  Working creatively with your institution as well as your student may be necessary to create the best outcomes.

Quality control, or checking in about access.  Since college and university students are adults, and we expect them to be able to represent themselves and speak up when things are not going as they should be going, it’s easy to presume that everything is fine with classroom accessibility unless a student brings a problem to us.  In my experience, many students with disabilities are aware that they have already asked to be treated differently, and are afraid of becoming burdensome if they bring up problems with access or accommodations.

The fact remains, however, that an accommodation is only worth the name if it actually provides accommodation.  For instance, a common example of an “accommodation” that isn’t happens when an instructor, acting in good faith, provides a set of PDFs of reading material for a student without realizing that image-only PDFs cannot be read by screen readers.  Checking in with the student is a quick, easy way to make sure that the accommodations that are in place are actually doing what they are supposed to do.  (Click and scroll down to learn to make PDFs that can be read by screen readers.)

For me, this is one of the places where I find it consonant with the notion of “accommodation” to do a little off-label educating via checking in about access.  By checking in with a student who uses disability accommodations, I can help teach them that educators have a vested interest in students having functional accommodations because it means they are better able to do their job (learning) and I am better able to do mine (teaching).


My thanks to Hannah Abrahamson, Anna Hull, Rachel Kolb, and several others who chose to remain anonymous for their input on an earlier draft of this post.

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