Do Attendance Policies Discriminate Against Disability?

August 2, 2014, 7:09 pm

Our Gang-School's OutLast week’s post on sending your kids off to college as independent souls hit a nerve. Read the comments for a lot of great conversation.

However, the blogger sillylegal, a recent graduate of a liberal arts college, thought the post was sorely lacking in its attention to the needs and rights of disabled students.  Perhaps it was, as I mentioned disability not at all, nor did I pay attention to the other ways that students are different from each other. I think sillylegal misread parts of the post, or perhaps just mischaracterized as we bloggers sometimes do when we write in haste, and I want to underline some choices I made when writing it. For example I deliberately did not use the phrase “helicopter parents” in the post, since the vast majority of parents mean well and it’s easier to reach people if you don’t mock them. For a similar reason, I did not characterize students who don’t meet faculty expectations as “lazy.” Lazy is a judgey, vague little garbage can that stands in for the many concrete reasons a student might not be doing well in school: instead, I highlighted misplaced priorities with which families can be complicit, and issues that faculty and students understand differently.

The point of the post was, in part, that when students and faculty have different expectations about things like attendance, the role of parents in making decisions, and handing things in on time, there may be some crossed wires involved. Parents can have a role in preparing their children to meet the new expectations of college by not actively interfering with college learning; while faculty could be a little less mystified and affronted when students have not yet acclimated to the college classroom.

But what about disabled students? Are attendance policies inherently discriminatory? As sillylegal, who has cerebral palsy, writes:

A sunny spring Saturday at the end of my senior year at Smith College found me sitting with a group of disabled students preparing for a Q and A about academic disability studies at Smith’s collaborative research symposium, the first panel of its kind. The professor facilitating the panel suggested a question about what we wished professors knew. Though far removed from our initial research topics, it felt great to have someone ask so the listing began.

Given the relatively predictable nature of my needs, I was surprised by a common complaint: strict attendance policies. Like the author, I assumed that being there was the way to show that I cared, and a reasonable expectation. Then a chronically ill friend explained to me that when a professor insists that students not miss class, not only does it unfairly pressure a sick student, but it encourages students to come even when contagious at great risk to students with suppressed or sensitive immune systems. Lesson learned.

Go to the post and read the list of things sillylegal has been thinking about. Faculty and parents of disabled students might want to learn more about how one student experienced overly rigid requirements in college.

So with sillylegal’s thoughts in mind, I would still like to say: when students aren’t in class, they are not getting the benefit of school. Administrators know this, and have to be accountable to the federal government for students success. Therefore, faculty (like myself) are often enforcing administrative policies that are not our own. On the other hand, should colleges work harder to keep disabled students in class? Yes. So let’s shift the focus and talk about what that would mean. (Caveat: there are many disabilities, they all have different effects on school attendance, and two students with the same disability may have very different needs.)

A disabled student needs to choose her college carefully, knowing that the school she wants and is qualified to attend might have a poor track record of accommodating her — or anyone else’s — disability. Even though accommodation is the law, some colleges and universities claim to have resources that they either lack or that are inadequate to the number of students who need them. Make no assumptions that the support your student had in high school will be replicated in college. Ironically, the schools everyone loves to love because of their small classes and cuddly relations with faculty — SLACs — sometimes aren’t very good at accommodating disability at all.

Why? First, because disabled students need faculty and administrators who are well-informed, well-supported and well-trained for all the personal attention of a SLAC to be effective. Why wouldn’t all SLACS do this? It’s a great question. And the answer is: Because it is really expensive. Really expensive. I have never heard anyone say this, but I suspect that many small, private schools actually choose not to make their campuses and classrooms disability friendly because it would make their campuses attractive to disabled students, and create even more demand for those expensive services.

Cynical, I know.

Here’s the news: schools that accommodate best, that are most physically accessible, that have learning and counseling centers staffed and run by well-paid professionals, are often big, public schools. Why? Because public schools can’t cherry pick; because their merits and demerits are open to public scrutiny; and because, compared to many small private schools, they have more robust budgets and student life staffs. When you and your prospective student are making a decision about what school he will attend, pay special attention to the actual resources. Ask what happens when students and faculty cannot agree on an accommodation, or if the agreed-upon accommodation isn’t working. Run through familiar scenarios from high school and ask how they would play out at the college level, and who would be in charge of coordinating a response. Ask to see the memo that faculty would get about accommodating your child and see if it outlines anything that would make sense given how you know your kid. What about the campus architecture? Can your mobility impaired student get into every building, or will they move her classes into accessible buildings, and not worry about whether she can attend talks, use the gym, see a friend in a dorm, confer with an advisor, or be in a play?

Do not take the word of the admissions office or a class dean that everything will be fine. Ask them to show you the money; they may surprise you and admit that there are things they don’t do well, and brainstorm a solution.

Students need to be fully engaged with their own education, but when disability accommodation comes down to a struggle over policy between a student and a member of the faculty (which it never should and often does), this is an outcome of perhaps unintentional, but certainly structural, discrimination against disabled students.

sillylegal, I am shocked that, in this day and age, a college like Smith was asking for direction from disabled students about what the school ought to be doing for them. Except that I am not shocked, because this is how people of good will at small colleges deal with a lot of issues that they ought to be hiring well-paid professionals to address: sexual assault, GLBTQ issues, and racism are but a few aspects of campus inclusion that you can hire people with advanced degrees and years of experience to take effective action on. No school administration should be asking students to educate them about something as basic as disability.

But they do. As sillylegal infers when she criticizes faculty who have strict attendance policies, invisible disabilities can make school far more difficult than being deaf, blind or mobility impaired. Invisible disabilities I have seen in my career include: chronic fatigue syndrome; seropositive status and other immune disorders; mental illness (anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disease are the most common); drugs that students take to control mental illness; learning disability; cancer treatments and other catastrophic illnesses; PTSD; and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Invisible disabilities may be the least well understood and recognized by faculty because they are not easily addressed with tutors and learning coaches, accessible classrooms or accessible course materials. They require flexibility about class attendance and the use of creative evaluation.

Parents: is the ethos of the school friendly to what your student needs? Does the school have the services it says it does? Are faculty trained to make accommodations? As importantly, are the faculty full-time? Contingent faculty — although they are often great teachers who care deeply about students — are simply not paid, nor do they have time, to substitute a 90 minute oral exam for a written exam (I often do this for students who are ADHD or OCD.) If they are teaching multiple classes, on one or more campuses, they cannot manage their own work lives if they have no help rescheduling for individual students; or are grading papers long after the class has ended and they have moved on to another semester’s overload, perhaps at another institution.

Finally, if your student has a learning disability, some kind of supported transition to independent college work may be required. If you cannot afford to pay for a coach, your student needs to attend a school with a learning center where people are trained to help properly, people who will notice if the student is going off the rails academically. Encourage your student to stay on whatever medication he is on and — very important! — not to sell it or give it away to other students who just want study drugs. Faculty can, and should, make accommodations, and be welcoming to students with disabilities. They should make sure to include readings about disability when appropriate, and they should educate themselves about disability. However, nothing about our graduate training comes close to the specialized knowledge of teachers who work with learning disabled students, nor do we know what to do when a student who has appeared to be high functioning begins to miss class, or stops handing work in, when she has gone off her meds.

Good news? Parents, you often do an awesome job of raising your disabled kids to stand up for themselves, be responsible for negotiating what they need and put the extra time into learning that they need to commit to in order to be successful. All the more reason to make sure they attend a school where they are appreciated and respected, and where what they have learned about navigating education will allow them to be fully included.

Readers, you did a great job on the last post: what am I missing?


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