Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Access, Not Special Privileges!

Guest Blogger: Cathy DeCourcey

In public education today, the general education teacher should expect to teach students with disabilities, students for whom English is a second language, students with special talents, as well as “typical” learners. Similarly, in higher education, increasing numbers of students with disabilities appear in our classes. What then, does a professor do with a student who has a disability?

Our attitudes about difference and disability have significant impact on our students’ success. Does our attitude suggest an openness so that students feel confident in disclosing their special needs? Does our attitude suggest that there are more ways to learn or demonstrate knowledge? What beliefs do we have, personally/professionally about disability and difference?

A student with a learning disability CAN learn the same content as a student without a disability. However, that individual might require accommodations to be able to demonstrate such. Providing accommodations isn’t about “special privileges” for someone; it’s about providing access.

Think about going for a driver’s license. There’s the written part of the test, the driving part of the test, and finally the vision part of the test. For the privileged few who have excellent, uncorrected vision, I can assure you that if you fail the vision section, no driver’s license! Even if I am successful with the written part, I can’t get behind the wheel without correcting my vision. (At least that’s the theory!)

When a student with a disability submits a letter from Services for Students with Disabilities that recommends accommodations such as additional time for testing or note-taker, that student seeks access to learning, not special privileges. Think of those accommodations as the corrective lens through which they can learn more effectively.


  1. You are right, though I'm not so sure of the driver’s license analogy or how the science squares up with the philosophy; because (1) the DMV won't provide you with glasses if you have poor vision -- you'll have to bring your own glasses or fail the driving test -- and (2) many students who not considered "disabled" (having a disability or special need) could improve their performance with some "accommodations" e.g. extra time -- there have been verified reports of high school students lobbying to be classified as having special needs because it allows them to improve their scores on some important standardized tests.

  2. I'm always open to expanding ways to communicate these concepts, so please feel free to share alternative examples.

    If I am unable to see, social service programs are available to so that I can get corrective lens. Thus, the driver (or learner) still has responsibility within the equation, but supports are in place to assure opportunity to see/drive (or learn).

    Certainly, many people could and do benefit from things set-up for folks with disabilities. Elevators may be required for compliance with ADA, but no one guards it to be used only by people with mobility impairments.

    As a society, do we choose to provide access to all levels of education to all students? If so, how do we do that equitably? The same is sometimes the least fair option. Who determines what is fair? Based on what criteria? Why bother? Deconstructing our beliefs regarding ability/disability can be critical to investigating our professional practice with respect to differences.

  3. Sorry about the typo or omission (of "are" in "many students who not considered").

  4. I think you raise such an important issue with your posting, Cathy. Here's my question. You ask in your response to Kwame, "Do we choose to provide access to all levels of education to all students?" To me that "all levels" is the issue. For example, last semester I had a student who lives in NYC (as many of our students do) and enrolled in our program which involved traveling to Lincoln all day every Saturday. He missed a number of classes (for non-health related reasons) and eventually dropped out but said he would be back next fall. He reported that he had a serious hip problem and couldn't sit for long periods but he would "talk to Student Services" and get excuses so that he could miss classes. This is the part that I'm trying to decide. I do think indeed that he should be free to go to graduate school if he wants and if he can. But his particular situation makes him inappropriate for our particular program with all the commuting and the long day of classes involved. Furthermore, his academic skills are very weak and he didn't appear to me to be the sort of student who was going to catch up with missed classes on his own. (In the half of the semester he attended, all of his work was submitted late and nothing earned a passing grade.) So am I required to agree to the "can have extra absences" contract from Student Services when I do not think they will be helpful? Is saying that "you can't have access to a program that isn't structured for the particular health problems you evidence" the same as saying "you can't have access to education because of your disability?" Those two statements don't seem to me to be the same thing. I really believe that we should accommodate students in any way we can--technology, whatever--but I'm not sure every student should be allowed to attend whatever educational experience he or she wants; wouldn't it make more sense for a student such as the one I describe to attend a school closer to home, or one that doesn't require nine hours of sitting in class on one day, or one that doesn't require full time attendance? Am I denying him a right if I say it's not going to work for my class, as long as he has other options at other universities? How far does accommodation go?