Let’s talk about accommodations. First, let’s clear up what they are. Accommodations are the steps taken, methods utilized, and resources provided or used that level the playing field for people with disabilities. They enable people with disabilities to achieve their highest potential. Once in place, they are mandated by law. Schools are required to provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities and in general, schools and workplaces are required to not discriminate against students and workers with disabilities.
Next, let’s talk about what they aren’t. They are NOT “special treatment” (and if I have to hear one more professor or student refer to them as such…let’s just say it won’t be pretty). People with disabilities are not given an advantage over others without disabilities by using accommodations. Let that sink in. People with disabilities use accommodations to show you their abilities, not to give them some magical new ability to one-up a person without a disability.
So, what is an example of an accommodation? For example, for people with a physical disability like hand tremors, or a learning disability that affects their ability to write might require the use of a computer with speech-to-text software so you can read what they know and want to convey. The use of the speech-to-text software doesn’t give their brain answers for the test, or info for that big project at work, it simply enables them to express themselves. When they aren’t given this accommodation, they aren’t able to write, and can’t convey to their teacher the knowledge they have worked hard to acquire and would likely receive poor scores on exams. But with the accommodation they have the ability to potentially be an “A” student, because they can actually tell you what they know. People without disabilities are allowed to hand-write their exams to express what they know, why can’t people who use other modes of communication out of necessity, use those methods to show their understanding of the material? Using an accommodation simply allows people with disabilities to display their abilities in a way that the inaccessible world can read/hear/see.
What is especially hard for people without disabilities to understand is when someone has an invisible disability–or a disability that is not easily apparent to people. This could include a brain injury, learning disability, chronic illness or health condition, or a number of other disabilities. In these situations, there are several accommodations that can be utilized–too many to put in this blog post–but know that these accommodations have been studied, practiced, and deemed appropriate by many before you. If someone needs additional time on an exam, it isn’t because they get more time. To them, that time isn’t the time they are working on their answers necessarily. It is the time their brain needs to process the information, or to process language. It is the time that they spend redirecting themselves back to the test after losing attention because of ADHD. It is the time they spend trying to find the right word in their brain because their TBI makes it harder to find.
In my career I’ve worked with people with disabilities in the education setting at almost all stages. First-hand I’ve seen students not receive or be deterred from seeking accommodations. This is not because the accommodations were not appropriate, but rather because the school lacked the motivation to add one more thing to their list of responsibilities in their already under-funded and under-supported classrooms.
But the truth of the matter is that students with disabilities are some of the best but underutilized resources to our communities. They are intelligent, capable, committed, and creative. If we allow ourselves to have access to what people with disabilities know, through accommodations and otherwise, we can advance as a society and community. We can better measure their skills and gifts, and encourage students to engage in paths that lead to new discoveries. Without a simple (and usually inexpensive) accommodation, we could miss out on the cure to cancer, or the rocket-ship that takes us to Mars. And it all starts in childhood.
When we don’t provide reasonable accommodations to students, we discourage them from learning at a young age. We tell students that they failed, when in reality we didn’t know how to access their brilliance. I can’t tell you how many adults with disabilities I have worked with who had low expectations for themselves, when it was inappropriate for their abilities to achieve higher potentials. They say and think each year for the 12 years of education in this country that they are “stupid” when in reality they aren’t. We train students with disabilities to be under-achievers, when they could contribute in ways we never imagined.
I personally know several special education and general education teachers who hold their students to their highest potential and have no problem identifying and encouraging students to use reasonable accommodations. This post is not about those teachers. This post is about the hundreds of teachers (usually general education teachers but also several *burned-out* special ed teachers) and administrators who want to put all students with disabilities in a box labeling them as burdens throughout their educational career.
I’ll dive into disability in higher-ed in another post, because that is a whole other beast, but it is even more of an issue in colleges and universities, mostly because they are just now encountering high-achieving (diagnosed) students with disabilities and are catching up to their growth after the fact. I had the privilege of working for Michigan State University’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, where I believe they have the model of what any disability resource office at a university should look like. I also ran a program for students with autism who attended the university and will dive deep into the resources provided at the post-secondary school level (and what is mandated and legally required at that level).
All in all, accommodations are advancing with technology and we need to encourage their use instead of treating those who need accommodations as lesser-than or questionable people trying to receive short-cuts or special treatment. When we allow the use of accommodations, and stop deterring students with disabilities from contributing to their classrooms, we will see an improvement in students’ demeanor and emotional health. We will see students with disabilities maintain gainful employment and be able to better support their families. We will see leaders with disabilities enacting change in their local, state and federal governments for the betterment of society.