There are some students who come along who are indeed beyond anything that we should realistically be expected to deal with. Yet, all too often, we are expected to deal with those students.
Every semester I get a notice from the Disabled Students Office about several students who are taking my class who are registered as disabled. We are expected to make “reasonable” accommodations.
Unfortunately, nobody seems to know what constitutes “reasonable.” Some students have hearing problems and need to record the lectures to play back later. No problem. Others need extra time on tests. I can do that. Some with visual difficulties need class handouts to be printed with extra large fonts. OK, that is not such a big deal.
These all take extra time, but I put them in the category of students that I mentioned earlier that simply need more of your time. But, of course, we have NO training in how to handle such cases. Again, we are trained in our disciplines, not in how to deal with disabled persons. We have people who have studied that, but they have not studied the individual academic disciplines, so they can’t help.
The real problem comes with those students who have major disabilities. For example, students who are blind or have major motor impairments.
We have curricula set up that involves students doing certain things to learn; part of that is lecture, homework, and tests. But in the sciences, there are also labs.
I have had students come along that simply could NOT do the regular laboratory work. In some cases, safety is an issue. How to you keep a blind student safe in a chemistry lab when there are open flames, beakers of dangerous chemicals, and fragile glassware?
What about a biology student whose hands shake and then tries to use a scalpel to dissect something? This means that you have to stick with that student through the laboratory exercise to make sure that they are safe. But you are also supposed to be watching out for other students. It often isn’t possible.
One solution is to meet with the disabled student to do the lab at some other time with just them. That means that you are effectively teaching an extra class, only not being paid for it. Some institutions have TA’s to help, some don’t. But, do you want to put the safety of this student in the hands of a TA even less trained to deal with them than you are?
I have had blind students before. The Office of Disabled Students is supposed to have someone to read the textbook to them and to read the test questions to them. Only for physics questions those people don’t understand the symbols that we use and they don’t want to come to class to learn the material, so they ask me to read the text and questions. Of course, that is extra, unpaid, work.
I have had other students with cognitive difficulties. One in particular required me to sit with her for about 3 hours after each one hour lecture explaining things. There are three of those per week. I worked with her for about 9 hours per week doing each lab that the other students did in less than 3 hours. That means that I was spending about 18 hours per week, extra, with just that one student. I still had a full teaching load, plus my other duties. And, of course, I did not get paid one dime for that extra 18 hours per week.
There have been other times when I have had to write entirely new laboratory exercises for some students who could not do what the existing labs required because of some physical limitation. That is even more work than teaching an extra section of the class because I was unable to use the existing lab manual. I had to spend about 6 hours per week writing new labs and then 3 hours per week doing the lab with the student.
Naturally, I did not get paid for teaching a special section of the class for this student. I don’t want to sound like all I’m after is money, but it really is not fair to expect me to put in all that extra time without ANY compensation other than that I feel good about helping someone. At least they could cut back on my teaching load, or actually count these special circumstances as part of my regular teaching load, but they don’t. I do it all on top of a full load.
Some might suggest simply not having the students do the exercises, but then that defeats the whole purpose. Those are supposed to be teaching experiences that help them learn.
Besides, is it fair to give laboratory science credit to a student who does not do a lab of any kind?
Is it fair to the disabled student to just hand them a degree if they have not earned it?
Apparently we got in trouble some years ago for giving a student a degree in a field that required passing a state licensing requirement, only for said student to be unable to pass that state licensing exam and get a job in the field because of their disability. The department in question had made many adjustments to its curriculum and requirements in order for the student to pass classes. The problem was that the student was unprepared for what came later.
Would it be right to adjust the curriculum so that a student got an accounting degree even though they had a cognitive problem that prevented their understanding numbers?
There has to be a better way.
This quickly gets past where I feel like I have any experience or ability to truly help someone. However, all too often, it falls on my shoulders to do the work. Of course, I am not the only one. This is happening in colleges and universities all over the nation.
Obviously disabled people can do quite well. I have met a blind astronomer and a blind computer scientist. I know of a deaf news reporter. Look at Stephen Hawking.
But these are people who did most of the work in overcoming their disabilities themselves. They did not have their accomplishments handed to them. They earned them, and they did so the hard way.
I know that I am probably going to upset a lot of people with these posts. But I see this as a problem facing us in the colleges and universities. I am not suggesting that we not work with disabled students. My fiancée is disabled and I really appreciate all that was done for her in her education. That is particularly true because I recognize that most of that was done by individuals who bent over backwards for her.
Until she met me and saw how much I have to do to help disabled students, she had been thinking that it was her university that had done all of that work. Now, she realizes that the university probably didn’t do as much as she thought. Rather, it was her professors who did most of the accommodating.
But I don’t want to leave her out. She has worked hard to not let her disabilities disable her. She often never asked for what would have been reasonable requests. She worked to perform like everyone else and she still does. To me, she seems to be quite a leader herself.
Readers of this site, I suppose, are looking for insights into leadership. Well, as I see it, a leader’s role is often more than just directly job related.
We are all human beings and human beings interact in all sorts of complicated ways.
We cannot totally separate our individual beliefs, feelings, and emotions from our professional selves. We bring all of these things into the job. They are what build the framework of how we see things, both on and off the job. So, when extraneous things are going on, they impact how we do our job.
Sometimes a leader needs to recognize that the people they are leading are people not robots. They can’t totally forget whatever else is going on in their lives. So, in order for them to be the best followers, their leader needs to help them address these outside influences.
Unfortunately, that takes time and it is often beyond what the leader is trained to do. I think part of the innate “leadership potential” that some people have is in their ability to help people focus on the job at hand.
You also have to know your own limitations. You need to know when dealing with these outside factors is over your head. That is when you need to refer the problem on.
Leaders have limits, too, and the best ones know their limits.
What do you consider “reasonable accommodation” in a college setting? [Miki]