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A few days ago, Bruce Pardy, Professor of Law at Queen’s University, published an op-ed in the National Post comparing students who “claim mental and cognitive impairments” to elite athletes. The gist of his argument is that if elite athletes with injuries are not entitled to accommodations in Olympic competitions, why are students with mental disabilities entitled to extra time for assignments or exams? In his own words, “extra time for mental disabilities is as unfair to other students as a head start would be to other runners.”
While the article is rife with misinterpretations of students with disabilities and calls to perpetuate ableism within the academic setting, a few points are worth picking apart in particular. Having witnessed friends undergoing the stigmatizing process of asking for accommodations, I can assure Professor Pardy that he is grossly misinformed if he believes students need not even “disclose the nature of the condition they claim to suffer.”
Receiving accommodations is far from easy and requires the student to face a significant amount of unnecessary stigma from peers and instructors like Professor Pardy.
A former classmate once described the process of asking for accommodations as a harrowing and humiliating experience. Even though the professor begrudgingly accepted the request, he failed to inform all teaching assistants administering the exam. As a result, when the time came to submit the exam and a fellow TA demanded her test, another TA ended up shouting from across the auditorium: “it’s alright- she gets extra time!”
The very process of asking for accommodations is stigmatizing and invites unwanted attention when handled inappropriately.
Fortunately, the concept of universal design side-steps this entire issue to begin with. Rather than having special requirements for a minority of the population to access resources that have been unjustly denied to them, our focus should be on creating a built environment that can be “accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”
Curb cuts on sidewalks are a great example- they ensure accessibility for people with disabilities, but they also benefit parents pushing strollers.
Within the academic setting, Bristol Community College offers a great case in point: their assessments are designed to allow students to utilize their primary learning styles/strengths (identified earlier in the course). Such an approach not only accommodates people with different learning styles and abilities, but also fosters creativity and diversity for students and professors alike.
Universal design offers a way for professors who are uncomfortable with offering accommodations to design inherently accessible courses and assessments. This approach offers no “undue hardships for other students in the class,” although I question the authenticity of such a concern when the author of the National Post article also believes that “discrimination is
one of the purposes of the exam.”
This kind of rhetoric, from an esteemed Professor no less, epitomizes the extent of ableism within academia. Students are made to feel inferior and inadequate before they have even begun to identify their intellectual interests. The request for accommodation does not harm other peers in any shape or form, and we must stop looking at the test taking process as a zero-sum game.
The reduction of students with disabilities to a caricature of unprepared, entitled students who simply demand more time without good reason is harmful and fails to appreciate the extent of ableism in academia towards people with visible and invisible disabilities.
If we really want to move beyond accommodations, we must pay careful attention to how exams and courses are designed in the first place- universal design has the potential to simultaneously allay the concerns of Professor Pardy and chip away at the rampant ableism within academia.
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