My disability accommodation policy, my approach to accommodating adverse circumstances that are unrelated to disability, and an example syllabus from a required course for students majoring in Sociology during the COVID-era.
It is common knowledge in the disabled community that “accommodations” for disability in higher eduction are often unreasonable, putting immense burden on disabled students to navigate a class environment that does not meet their access needs. When professors fail to provide reasonable accommodations, they are rarely forced to change course–honestly, you’re lucky if your disability student center mentions the access issue to the professor at all. As a disabled student, it always felt highly personal when this happened. Now that I have several years of experience as an instructor, sitting through trainings and teaching discussions with other instructors, I am still furious when students are denied reasonable accommodation, but I have a slightly different understanding of the denial as a personal slight.
This is not to give instructors denying accommodations a pass, but it is to point out that the bigger issue is that ableism is structured into the institutional framework of higher education (all education really, but that’s for another day). Instructors are socialized into a highly ableist system beginning in their undergraduate years, long before many even realize they will pursue a career in higher education. This system effectively limits the number of disabled instructors by centering norms in higher education around, not just the abled students and faculty, but the most superior of these groups–the “mentally fit” (aka “intelligent”). Bonus points if also very physically fit and attractive. This also creates a situation where the success stories become inspiration porn, often because they take on the “supercrip” mentality, but also because the system is literally structured so that disabled people must overcome their disabilities to some extent to survive.
One of the key items used to reproduce this ableist power imbalance? The syllabus. Yes, the accommodation policy, but also the rest of the policies, the course structure, and even the formatting of the syllabus itself down to the font choice and color selection for paper if provided printed copies.
My goal as an instructor has always been to make my courses as flexible as possible, centering the understanding that most students will need some form of adjustment, if not accommodation for disability, instead of assuming that most students will be non-disabled and socialized into an elite learning style (I tought at an R1 flagship university in the United States for 14 semesters ending December 2022). In the beginning I was mocked, laughed at, and bullied by my peers (exception of 3, also graduate students at the time, 2/3 in my own cohort…). The faculty member in charge of our graduate teaching seminar required to become an instructor told me my syllabus “just makes you sound like a nice person, which is great but your students want a smart person, who cares about nice??” Needless to say I’ve gotten in many arguments over the years, but interestingly enough, I’ve had many colleagues start to ask my advice in the COVID-era. Some people have started to realize that the traditional course setting isn’t just something that “doesn’t work” for all students, that it is something set up to purposively exclude certain students while favoring others. If you are one of those people, this post is for you!
There are 2 major barriers to students getting what they need accommodation-wise that have almost nothing to do with the instructor: medicalization of disability, and ignorance of other important circumstances that may warrant accommodation, like having a child, having full-time employment, or caring full-time for a parent. My most recent version of the accommodation section of my syllabus has not changed much in light of COVID-19, but there is one important distinction. While I did not wait until the pandemic to realize students needed (and wanted) to have access to course recordings and virtual attendance, it did take a student’s request for me to consider this as an appropriate course of action, and I will admit, my gut reaction was hesitation. I ignored it, and I can say it’s one of the best decisions I have made in my teaching career. It was also a huge step for my own battle against internalized ableism and supercrip mentality. Here’s the wording to my 2-section accommodation policy encompassing medically documented disability, disability without medical documentation, and non-disability reasons for needing accommodation.
The most important part of the non-disability section? Not putting parameters around who is allowed to ask for accommodations or a certain accommodation, and instead, taking a “no questions asked” approach.
I once had a colleague ask me how I managed to not be worried that students would take advantage of my accommodation policy. My response to that colleague? Some of them probably will take advantage of my policy, and you know what? It is still 100% worth it, every single time. It would be worth it if 44/45 students took advantage, because chances are, the 45th really needed that flexibility. It’s also not for me to judge whether they are taking advantage–if they say they need something, who am I to tell them what they do or do not need?
As a critical sociologist and disabled person, I can also answer my own question–nobody, not me, not you, not any doctor, no disability student center staff member, NOBODY, has a better understanding of their needs than the student expressing the need.
So, here’s the text, pulled from my Research Methods in Sociology syllabus from Fall 2022. I am posting this one on purpose. Not because it is the most recent, but because it is for a major required core class. Methods and theory always seem to come up in the “but what if’s” of the accommodation discussion. It’s possible, the course is over so I can say it went smoothly, and I’ve used it once before with theory, too. Here is your evidence! At min, take the text and share widely. If you’re skeptical? Take the syllabus, too.
And remember, there is nothing weak or pathetic about being kind. All of your colleagues are smart, but the students will remember who was kind to them, and who was horrible. Don’t be the horrible one. Your students have everything to gain, what do you really have to lose?
Accommodations Page Text
You may face barriers to accomplishing course requirements for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to: neurodiversity, visible physical disability, non-visible physical disability, chronic illness, learning disability, mental illness, temporary disability (injury) and bereavement processes. The classroom should always be an inclusive and safe environment for all students, and I will work with the DRC and/or disabled students to maintain course accessibility. On-campus, medical, resources for students include The Disability Resource Center (DRC) (706-542-8719, 114 Clark Howell Hall), which facilitates accommodations for medically documented disabilities.
Some students seeking disability accommodations may choose to do so through non-medical routes (i.e. self-DX). I recognize the potential barriers to seeking medical disability accommodations and will work with students seeking non-medical disability accommodations to specify a plan of action, if needed (see Universal Design for Learning, below, for more information about accommodations without medical documentation).
While accommodations work best when put in-place quickly/early, it is your legal right to request new accommodations and/or alterations to disability accommodations at any time during the semester (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990).
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) via Hybrid Synchronous Instruction
The course includes a required face-to-face component, with the option to attend classes on-campus in a physical classroom and/or virtually via Microsoft Teams. You are expected to regularly attend all lectures, labs, library sessions, and guest speaker sessions during scheduled class time. Lectures, labs, and guest speaker sessions will be recorded and retroactively posted to eLC for review.
The main goal of this course is fulfilling the course learning objectives. We will use a several different technologies this semester to maximize your options for participation, including Microsoft Teams, FlipGrid, and WooClap. Everyone has different strengths, and you know how you learn best. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) gives you the power to control how you participate in learning with revise and resubmit options, alternative assignment formats, and alternative participation formats (as is reasonable within constraints of a methods course).