When a Professor Said My Accommodations Were 'Unfair' to Students Without Disabilities


Being an aerospace engineering major has been expectantly difficult, in unexpected ways. I knew this would be a hard career path for me to follow. As a woman, I have experienced sexist behavior in my flight training before and predicted its presence in this male dominated degree as well. I have a type of dyslexia, called dyscalculia, that effects the way I see and work with numbers. So, I anticipated my disability would cause me to struggle while studying rocket science as well. However, I never would have thought simply having a disability would cause such an issue.

Because of my disability, I get certain accommodations from my university. I am allowed a calculator on every exam, I get extended time on exams and take them in a reduced distraction room that is separate from the rest of my class. These accommodations are meant to aid in “leveling the playing field,” so to speak, and every professor is legally required to provide them. Even though they must provide them, not all my professors have been happy about it.

A little over a year ago, I was discussing my accommodations before an upcoming exam with a professor of mine. Even though he signed the agreement to the accommodations from the university, he was still confused about the whole thing. He then proceeded to express his feelings of how my accommodations were “unfair to the other students.” I knew then that the semester was going to be an uphill battle.

It seemed as though at every opportunity, my professor made taking the class more difficult for me. I tried to avoid setting up my accommodations with him and sought out help from the graduate teaching assistant (GTA) instead. Before the next exam, I was discussing the accommodations with the GTA when my professor interrupted us just as I was reminding him that my extended time is double the class time. My professor informed me that he wasn’t required to give me the double time for my exam and he would consider the extension.

A wave of anger washed over me. I reminded him of the contract he signed and that he legally must provide the accommodations. I panicked and tried to calculate my exam time with my start and stop times. I struggled with it as mental math is something my disability greatly affects but I had to make sure I was being provided for since my professor wasn’t. Luckily, he allowed for the correct amount of time, out of the kindness of his heart, I’m sure.

Eventually, the final came. Throughout the semester, I would typically start my exams at the same time as the rest of the students and go longer. For the final, I was worried this would cause a problem for me. I had another final for a different class shortly afterwards and felt as though that did not give me enough time to prepare for the next exam. So I proposed to my professor that we start my final exam 30 minutes earlier.

He dragged his feet over this trivial matter of just 30 minutes. First, he couldn’t do that because he arrives on campus at 8:00 and not 7:30. He told me starting that early was a lot of effort and he just didn’t see how it would be worth it. So, I suggested the GTA proctor it instead. That wasn’t acceptable either. I then recommended that the department secretary provide it. That also wouldn’t work because the department office opens at 8:00 and not 7:30. He eventually told me he would think about coming in at 7:30 and he would let me know.

I did end up taking my exam 30 minutes earlier, but my professor never let me know of his decision. I was left guessing at which time my exam was until that morning. I showed up at 7:30 just to be safe and caught him right outside his office.

My professor’s actions left me feeling isolated and as though my aptitude was not up to the standardss of someone who truly belongs in engineering. This experience further increased my depression and anxiety as well. My university had failed me by failing to train their faculty. I have since learned that faculty members are not required to take any kind of training from the university regarding students with disabilities.

After this experience, I have since advocated my own concerns and ideas for improvement to several campus officials. Despite some positive reactions, I feel as though not much has changed. Even in this current semester I have experienced discrimination. When explaining to a professor that I am training a service dog that will start coming to class, he inquired if I have asked the rest of the students if they were OK with me bringing a dog. He suggested that the class vote on the matter, as he thought it might be distracting to everyone else.

What will it take for my university to start listening to my concerns and train their professors? When will I be provided what I need to be successful without it being a question of fairness to those without disabilities?

After the comment about my service dog, I went to the office that provides the accommodations for students with disabilities. They were shocked about what had happened and informed me of my options. They also notified my department chair and he finally agreed to mandatory training at the next faculty meeting, something I had previously suggested with no results.

After the mandatory training, I have been able to bring my service dog to aid with my depression and anxiety symptoms, and receive my accommodations for dyscalculia without much struggle. There is always room for improvement, however, and I will continue fighting for it.

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Thinkstock photo by Monkey Business Images.

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