September 25, 2010

The disability-friendly college classroom

There is an excellent post on FWD/Forward about how classroom policies can impact students with disabilities. A lot of college instructors have strict classroom policies (no eating, no drinking, no laptops, no getting up in the middle of class, no looking at cell phones, no packing up before the end of class...) because they feel like undergrads are distracted and rude, and they want to demand attentive, respectful behavior.

The problem is that many of these policies hurt students with disabilities who may need to eat or use a laptop or get up in the middle of class. Behaviors that seem "disrespectful" to instructors may be necessary for some students to get through the hour, or to understand and retain the lecture.

Students can ask the professor to make an exception, or they can go through the office for students with disabilities. But professors are often suspicious when students request accommodations, and getting a disability verified through the university can be difficult and exhausting, especially at universities that want extensive documentation and testing. Plus, as the post points out, even if an exception is granted, other students may ask uncomfortable questions if they see a student "breaking the rules."

I believe that all classrooms should be friendly to students with a variety of learning styles and needs. When I teach, I tell my students that it's okay to eat, drink, and take restroom breaks. I also encourage students to contact me privately if they need any other accommodations. And of course, I allow laptops. And it's completely fine. Most days, nobody even takes me up on my food/drink/break policies -- but when they do, I'm glad they feel comfortable taking care of their needs. I would much rather my students do what they need to do, instead of suffering or not learning because they are afraid of offending me.

Unfortunately, many college instructors have ableist classroom policies, and they resent students who break them. Even professors who do not announce classroom policies may get angry when they see students eating or leaving the room. I know this because I experienced it many times as a student. (I told a story about this in the comments at FWD, but I've already told it on the blog so I won't repeat it). And as a TA, I have worked with professors who have strict policies involving laptops and food.

Sadly, being a TA has also taught me that professors are often unsympathetic when students approach them privately to request accommodations due to disability, illness, or personal circumstances. I have gotten in trouble for giving extensions and excusing absences when the professor found out and decided the student was probably lying, or should have sucked it up. It's true that I prefer to err on the side of helping students who need it, even if it means a few might get away with lying to me. And everyone has different standards for that sort of thing. But I've been shocked in certain cases -- times when students were obviously in serious physical or mental distress, and the professor scoffed and denied their requests.

I think it's because after years of teaching college -- especially at an elite university -- many professors come to view all of the students as privileged whiners who don't have any real problems. They resent the students, and they don't want them to "get away" with anything. I understand where this comes from (some of them are rich, entitled brats!), but many students are genuinely struggling -- financially, physically, mentally.

So, we can start out demanding that students attend every class, sit perfectly still, and write with a pen, and we can be suspicious of anyone who asks for an exception -- making them feel like a cheater and demanding documentation -- or we can chill the fuck out and give students the benefit of the doubt. For most students, classroom policies don't matter. But for students who need an accommodation, it can make a tremendous difference.


  • Online education is normally the best choice for someone with disabilities. The flexibility makes it less stressful on the student while accommodating any disabilities that are preventing a student from attending class every day. Now that online schools are becoming more sophisticated, its more convenient than ever to attend online regardless of physical disability. That’s the great thing about online education. Some schools have additional resources such as tutoring, live one-on-one lectures, financial assistance,and career services. You might find that online schools are more accommodating and more willing and able to assist you better than a traditional on campus school. Keep in mind the traditional on campus schools are just that, traditional and they have a particular student population in mind and they cater to that population.

    American College of Technology – Online

    By Anonymous Lute Atieh, at 3/29/11, 8:57 AM  

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