Educational Equity for Students With Disabilities

The fight for fairness and equity for all students facing learning challenges.

September 28, 2021

There are subjects so sensitive that the safest course is to avoid them. Anything one writes on such topics is vulnerable to misunderstanding or misrepresentation.

But sometimes those topics are so important that they’re perhaps worth the risk.

Such is the case with disabilities and academic accommodations.

I hope we call all agree that all our students:

  • Should receive an education commensurate with their abilities and talents
  • Have a right to a learning environment that gives them an equal chance to succeed
  • Should be able to compete on a level playing field

So let me be clear from the outset: I am a staunch advocate for accessibility. To that end, every class session I teach is recorded. Every PowerPoint presentation is placed online. Assessments are embedded in modules that students have a full week to complete. I strive to make my classes manageable for every student, precisely because I believe that almost every learner faces some kind of learning challenge.

Some of those challenges are cognitive, others psychological and emotional, some social, and still others a product of life circumstances. Some meet ADA standards; some do not -- reflecting a kind of arbitrariness that I find misguided.

This semester over 15 percent of my 640 students have a registered disability requiring an academic accommodation. Not only is this figure far higher than in the past, but virtually all have registered learning disabilities, and almost none report auditory, visual or mobility issues.

Those latter issues used to be much more common, which suggests to me that such students might be discriminated against in admissions.

Several things strike me about the accommodation letters provided by my university.

  1. The recommendations are pretty formulaic and perfunctory. These letters typically call for extra time for an exam, a quiet space to take the exam, a copy of the professor’s PowerPoint slides and access to notes provided by a note taker. They don’t seem to be tailored to individual students’ needs.
  2. The recommendations aren’t forward looking. These letters are not the equivalent of a genuine individualized educational plan.
  3. There isn’t a partnership between the disabilities center and the faculty. No doubt, that’s partly due to the overwhelming numbers and to medical privacy issues. But it would certainly be helpful to have more information and more open discussion. When I reach out to get actionable advice about how best to meet a student’s needs and most appropriately assess the student’s learning, it seems that the disabilities center staff doesn’t view that as their function or responsibility.
  4. Learning disabilities are defined too narrowly. Students who are undergoing extreme stress or who are suffering from depression face a learning challenge. So, too, do those students who have certain personality, behavioral or social challenges. In my view, these too require appropriate accommodations.

Of course, the elephant in any discussion of disabilities involves fairness and equity, which needs to be examined through a variety of lenses.

  • A demographic lens: The students with registered disabilities do not appear to be a cross-section of the undergraduate student body. How can we best ensure that all students with disabilities receive appropriate accommodations?
  • A pedagogical lens: As an instructor, I might value certain pedagogical approaches that may (or may not) elicit different levels of performance from various students. A professor might consider an in-class oral presentation or a high-stakes, timed exam of great value, even though we have been recently told that such assignments do not necessarily or accurately measure a student’s mastery of the material. Should an instructor be free to make that decision without interference?
  • A mentoring and advising lens: In theory, students with registered disabilities are supposed to meet with their instructor and discuss the class and any accommodations. Few do -- which I suppose is lucky, since I’d have to spend a full week or more discussing accommodations with individual students. Of course, the result is a lost chance for one-on-one mentoring.
  • A legal lens: The accommodation issue has generated a great deal of litigation. Among the issues that are contested are these:
    • What does equal access to learning materials require?
    • Is it appropriate or legal to tailor learning materials to particular groups of students?
    • Must every class be accessible to every potential student?
    • Who should ultimately decide what is or isn’t an appropriate accommodation for a particular course?

An alternative to the dominant approach that mandates accommodation is universal design for learning. An outgrowth of universal design in architecture -- an effort to make physical environments universally accessible -- universal design for learning is rooted in the principle that all courses should be designed in ways that give all students an equal opportunity to succeed.

Instead of existing courses accommodating diverse learners, classes should be designed from the bottom up to anticipate the needs of all students. Content should be presented in multiple modalities. Students should be provided with guides, glossaries, tutorials, rubrics and, if at all possible, instructional materials in multiple languages. Assessments should take multiple forms.

I have found universal design principles exceedingly helpful as I have redesigned my own classes. But these principles don’t necessarily answer all questions about fairness and equity. For example:

  • The practicality issue: Can we realistically expect all faculty members to redesign all their classes to make them accessible and adaptable for all potential students? If universal design is our goal, then we need to provide instructors with much more support and scaffolding.
  • The consistency issue: Is the fairest approach to give students alternative and optional ways to engage with the material and demonstrate mastery or is it fairer to hold students to the same requirements and expectations? And who should decide this issue -- a faculty member, a disabilities center or the student and the student’s advocates?
  • The inclusiveness issue: Although universal design is intended to meet the needs of students with cognitive and physical disabilities, what about the many other impediments to learning that are related to behavior, personality characteristics, language and cultural background, and life circumstances? How can we design courses to meet those students’ needs?
  • The developmental issue: Is the goal of universal design merely to help students succeed academically in individual courses and graduate, or should these goals be part of a more holistic growth plan, with a clear pathway and goal? We must ask ourselves: Are we preparing students with disabilities for postgraduation success?

There is every reason to believe that more and more students are likely to need accommodations in the years to come, especially if, as some speculate, the U.S. Department of Education, Congress or the courts require colleges and universities to automatically accept high school accommodation certification and their individual education plans.

We can go on as we have, or we can try to do better. But that won’t be easy. It will require institutions to:

  • Incentivize instructors to scrutinize their courses; identify barriers to success; reimagine their pedagogies, content and delivery modalities; and consider alternate ways to demonstrate and assess mastery in order to meet the needs of all students.
  • Provide much more support to faculty to design and deliver classes that are truly accessible and accommodating.
  • Give advisers the resources needed to create much more robust and individualized educational plans for students facing learning challenges.

Our current approach -- accommodations -- represents a desultory, perfunctory compromise that allows institutions to meet the letter of the law while demanding minimal effort on the part of instructors. But half-assed isn’t good enough.

The time to fight for fairness and equity for all students facing learning challenges is now.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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