Are Disability Accommodations Giving Students an Unfair Advantage?
Illustrated by Lou Deziel
Imagine this: it’s the beginning of a new semester at Dawson and you’re starting to settle into your classes. You already have an in-class essay exam coming up soon and you’re feeling the pressure. Thankfully, there’s this really nice guy in your class who usually sits next to your seat, the one that was never specifically assigned to you but will make you feel strangely resentful if someone sits in it before you do, so you strike up a conversation about the exam, secretly hoping that he will tell you that he’s just as unprepared as you are. To your surprise, he starts telling you about how he won’t be writing it in class, but rather in a separate room where he will have extra time to complete it, plus a computer with spellcheck to write it on. You might wonder, why does he need these extra things in the first place? He seems normal to you, so why shouldn’t he write the exam the way it was intended to be written so that everyone is graded equally? You wouldn’t be the only one wondering, as some teachers at Dawson are asking the same questions.
If a student is registered with Dawson’s Student AccessAbility Centre (SAAC), they might have access to extra exam time, computers and much more. These extras are called “accommodations” and are provided to students with documented disabilities, ranging from sensory and motor impairments to mental health disorders, as well as temporary cases brought on by accidents or illnesses. Every case is different and some are less clear-cut than others. In many instances, it can be difficult to identify why a student might need certain accommodations, which can cause classmates and teachers alike to question the validity of the accommodations and the student’s motives. Is it possible that some students are taking advantage of these services to boost their grades or breeze through their studies? After having done a bit of investigating, I have discovered a whole new perspective on the question.
Before beginning my investigative journey out in the world, I made the calculated decision from the comfort of my couch to take to the Internet for some much-needed statistics. I wanted to find out if disabled college students have different grades than college students without disabilities. Turns out that, about a decade ago, Dawson College held a 12-year study that sought to answer this exact question, which was then published in the Canadian Journal of Counselling as “Academic Performance of College Students With and Without Disabilities: An Archival Study”. The study had this to say about the subject: “Results showed that students with and without disabilities, including learning disabilities, had virtually identical grades and graduation outcomes. However, students with disabilities undertook lighter course loads and took approximately one semester longer to graduate”. Keeping in mind that disabled students recorded in this study would have necessarily disclosed their disability to the school and have been referred to the SAAC for support as per standard procedures, disabled students are succeeding just as well as other students, just under different conditions. It’s no surprise then that disabled students use accommodations, as they mainly serve as condition-modifiers, or rather personalized ways to meet the student’s pace.
With this new knowledge in hand, I decide to visit the SAAC directly to get some more answers. The first person I meet is Christine Bustamante, one of the centre’s Adapted Services Counselors. Her office, near the back of the SAAC reception area, is cozy, to say the least: earthy-toned decorations hang from the walls, plants can be seen in every corner, and the whole space is softened by low lighting. During the course of our discussion, she shares with me that most students registered with their services use the exam centre, which can offer students extra time on tests or just a modified, quieter space, as well as notetakers in class. However, the services that students can access aren’t the same across the board. “Every accommodation is decided based on the student’s needs”, Christine says. “Even if two people may present with the same diagnosis, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will receive the same accommodations”. When asked about why Dawson offers accommodations, she concisely tells me that “accommodations are there to create an equitable environment so that the student can succeed in class and throughout their college experience”. As good as the reasoning sounds, some teachers aren’t entirely convinced. “Teachers, at times, can resist some of the accommodations that have been approved”, she reveals. The sentiments hardly ever last, however. “In my experience, once we communicate with the teacher and we explain the accommodation, what it looks like, why it’s being used, usually teachers come around to accepting them in class”, Christine adds. Her explanation for resistance amongst teachers is simple: “A lot of times, if teachers are hesitant or resistant, it has a lot to do with misinformation, or maybe just not understanding how it’s related to the course”.
After my meeting with Christine, I am referred to Rosie Arcuri, another Adapted Services Counselor who also happens to be in charge of assistive technology, which Rosie later explains as being a library of tools to help with various barriers, such as reading and writing difficulties. Rosie has a lot of history with disability support services and accommodations. She is legally blind, which means that she has severely limited vision, but is able to see forms and read magnified-text, and was registered with the SAAC when she was a student at Dawson. When I first met Rosie, I immediately noticed that her eyes do not focus on my face, which clearly indicated her limited vision to me. Unlike Christine’s office, Rosie’s office, situated in the SAAC’s study lab, is bare, save for her large desktop computer and a red fidget spinner by her side, and is brightly lit by fluorescent bulbs. When I ask her about resistance to accommodations from teachers, she shares with me that a lot of issues are based around technology: “There is some concern with using assistive technology in the classroom, specifically with recording, using computers and phones. There’s resistance with giving the material in Powerpoint format rather than PDF, or doing it in advance rather than after like they normally do”. Additionally, Rosie tells me that there are cases of teachers getting frustrated with students that use accommodations, such as having a notetaker, and then missing classes. Situations like these cause negative impressions, as SAAC counsellors then have to step in and find a middle ground between the teacher and the student, and the teacher might become more resistant to the use of notetakers in the future.
Continuing on the topic of resistance from teachers, Rosie identifies a majorly controversial accommodation from her experience: “Memories aids are a huge [problem], that’s where there’s concern about cheating and whether the student really needs one”. What are memory aids, you might ask? “If a student has a very low working memory score, [below 25%,] then we will generally give memory aid for tests”, Rosie explains. “It might be a formula sheet, an abbreviation to jog the memory, things of that nature”. It might seem like a huge advantage, but Rosie insists that circumstances are key: “To access the memory aid, there has to be a severe need. Along with a low working memory score, there needs to be a rationale for it, like [for example] if they’re spending so much time trying to remember a formula that they’re not focusing on how to use the formula. There needs to be a certain barrier for them in their class because of their memory and we need documented reasons to give the memory aid”. Not just anybody can use this sort of accommodation and Rosie assures me that she is cautious about how it is used. “It’s not supposed to be the answer, but something that will help you to get where you need to be without giving an unfair advantage”, she says.
Before wrapping up my time with Rosie, I ask her about her personal experience with accommodations at school and, later, in the workplace. She recounts to me that, as she progressed in school, she required less and less accommodations and that in college and university, like many other disabled students, she took a reduced load. In regards to work, Rosie confesses to me that work has been harder for her. “I know where to go for the accommodations, but then you also have productivity expectations, fitting in and frustrations”, she says. When asked if she has felt unequal with her colleagues in the past, she shakes her head. “I mean, what do you think of as equality?”, Rosie counters. “At the end of the day, we all get the same salary, we all have our own challenges. For me, it’s my vision, but for somebody else, it might be that they have to take time off for the kids or they’ve never gotten used to technology. It really depends on you. Everything is about perception. I’ve led 300+ workshops, I have lots of strengths, I just know what I can and can’t do”. Rosie had revealed to me that accommodations can help with certain barriers, but that at the end of the day, challenges are unavoidable.
What about the students currently using Dawson’s disability accommodations, however? In search of some more personal perspectives, I meet with Joseph-Alexandre Darrous, one of the SAAC’s Special Education Technicians specializing in support for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), who introduces me to two of his students, Alex and Kaliope. Alex has been registered with the SAAC for over two years, following a referral from his English teacher at the end of his first semester, while Kaliope has been registered since the beginning of her time at Dawson, about five years ago. Both of them have opted for extended time on their tests, with occasional access to a computer with spellcheck, as well as notetakers in the past. Kaliope specifically mentions that she has needed notetakers for attention-related reasons: “I’ve had notetakers before because I’m really bad at listening and taking notes at the same time, my attention just cannot be split”. When asked about working in a classroom environment, she tells me that when students are misbehaving or the teacher stops the class to focus on one student, she has a lot of trouble with bringing her attention back to the content of the class afterwards.
When I specifically ask about how accommodations have helped Kaliope and Alex, Kaliope tells me that having access to the SAAC exam centre has been a very effective accommodation for her. “Test-taking is easier because I’m in a quieter space, which is awesome for concentration”, she says. “The environment makes like 90% of the difference. It’s eye-opening when you can just sit down and focus, there’s nobody around making your environment monstrous”. Alex also expresses gratitude for the exam centre. “It has helped me be less stressed for my tests, I don’t have to worry as much about taking too much time”, he shares. When asked about his experience with the SAAC as a whole, Alex, a man of few words, says: “Now I don’t feel like I have as much trouble in school”. As for Kaliope, she is grateful for the support of the SAAC and Joseph’s involvement, in particular, for helping her put schooling into perspective. She frequently meets with Joseph in his office so that they can create learning and organizational strategies for her. “Having a place where I can calm down and look through things in detail like I’m supposed to do is a godsend”, Kaliope says about Joseph’s office. Gesturing to Joseph, she jokes: “If we could clone him, that would be great”.
Kaliope has experienced some resistance from teachers towards her accommodation requests in the past. She believes that teachers might be uncooperative based on a lack of understanding of her condition. “I find that most teachers, because they aren’t really familiar with autism in general, they often don’t believe that you need the accommodations, they want you to prove in class that you can’t focus”, Kaliope shares. “Until they see evidence, they don’t really believe you, and once they see it, then they understand”. Because autism isn’t usually a visible disability, Kaliope feels like she has to prove to people that she’s autistic. “I get asked by people “What do you mean you’re autistic?” and I don’t know how to explain it”, she shrugs.
In short, taking advantage of the SAAC’s accommodations would be a difficult task, as you would need a documented disability just to get your foot in the door, plus the support that you receive would be determined by professional counsellors who have extensive experience with disabilities. From the multiple testimonies above, those who use accommodations have a real need for them. Whether certain students take advantage of disability support is not a closed case, but one thing seems to be clear, as shown by the study on grades, the mission of the SAAC and the experiences of those using its services: accommodations are not a way to get ahead of others. Recalling Rosie’s words, “we all have our own challenges… Everything is about perception”.