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Why Attendance Policies Hurt Disabled and Chronically Ill Students

Going into a college class on the first day can be an overwhelming experience. Will my professor like me? Will the assignments be interesting? Will the course load be manageable?

However, for disabled students, the questions have higher stakes and are much more personal.

Is this professor going to understand my disability?

Are they going to fight me over my accommodations?

Am I going to end up losing points for attendance because of a chronic illness I can’t control? 

As a disabled student, the first thing I do when I get a syllabus is flip to the attendance policy. Last week at the beginning of the semester, I ran into a policy that was especially daunting and ableist. It stated that you could miss class four times without penalty, after which 2% of your final grade would be deducted for every class missed. On top of that, leaving early or showing up late to class could count as a complete absence, and students with only one absence would be rewarded with an additional 3% added to their grade.

I tweeted out what I found on my syllabus, and it quickly took off. While many fellow disabled students related, others didn’t understand why this was such a barrier for disabled students.

The goal of attendance policies is usually to ensure students are putting effort into attending class. They also often recognize the value of in-class interactions between students. However, these same well-intentioned policies often have unintended consequences for disabled and chronically ill students. Many professors will give you one or two free absences, after which point they begin to dock your grade. I’ve seen professors even drop entire letter grades for any absences beyond their policies. 

Missing class because of your disability is frustrating, and not the “day off” that many people, including instructors, seem to think it is. The exact opposite is far more likely to be accurate. Often, those disabled students are in pain, sick or mentally unwell. We know we will have more absences than others, so we take attendance seriously. 

Professors sometimes even go so far as to say they won’t send any missed material, and that those who were absent need to ask other students. This kind of policy never works out well for a variety of reasons. Other students in the class may not be good notetakers, and students who struggle socially (especially if that’s an aspect of their disability) might not have friends in class to ask. Students who have not missed class tend to get annoyed if a classmate regularly asks for notes without explaining their absence, so disabled students are often put in the position of having to disclose their illness or disability in order to continue getting those notes. When professors refuse to help students catch up, it shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the stressors students face, particularly disabled students.

Is it truly good teaching to refuse to help a student who is conscientiously trying to achieve excellence in your class despite illness or disability? Rather than directing students to rely on classmates for help, posting things such as PowerPoints or instructor notes is helpful to everyone, especially those with a variety of different disabilities. Those who struggle with quick comprehension can review first so they have time to process and ask their questions in class. Those who struggle to write quick, high-quality notes can go back over it again and supplement. Those with auditory or visual processing that occurs more slowly or memory problems can re-review or go back over something they couldn’t grasp fully in class. Those who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing can review the topic so it’s easier to lip-read or keep up with an interpreter in class. 

Many attendance policies also discredit or penalize showing up late, or having to leave early. However, there are lots of reasons a student may need to leave class early or come in late and that effort shouldn’t be disregarded. Panic attacks/overload, digestive disability, pain, needing medicine or assistance and low blood sugar are just a few examples of issues that may impact disabled students. Some of these things a student can plan for and have the tools in place to help them succeed, but other times an issue may hit without warning.

There have been many times I’ve made a pact with myself that I will at least try to attend so the professor can see my effort, and if I have to leave early then that’s OK. There have been times when that pact is the only thing that got me to class. Students with severe anxiety may be standing outside your class for longer than you think, trying to relax enough to come inside. That effort should not be disregarded. 

Another increasing trend I see is professors no longer accepting doctor’s notes as excused absences, and this one is truly dangerous. Sick students should not be coming to class, and should feel like they won’t be penalized for keeping their illness away from other students. Rigid attendance policies encourage sick students to attend class and your immunocompromised students (for whom illness can be life-threatening) are put at serious risk. The logic for not accepting doctor’s notes is often explained as encouraging students to schedule appointments outside of their class times. But this often isn’t a reality for disabled or medically-complex students or even able-bodied students with an acute illness. Specialists have limited times and days available, and appointments are often scheduled months in advance — well before a school schedule is made. If a student has an acute illness or a flare of new symptoms, they may need to see someone more urgently and flexibility is rarely an option.  

Finally, there are those insidious rewards for perfect attendance. Things like, “If you only have one absence by the end of the semester, you will receive an extra 3% to your final grade.” They start in elementary school, where students get certificates for achieving perfect attendance and have found their way into college campuses. It’s critical that we get the message out to educators everywhere: Your disabled students are trying, you’re financially unstable students are trying and your students with a chaotic home life are trying. Please stop rewarding those who do not have the same barriers as us, simply for the privilege of not having those barriers. Attendance alone does not determine the worth of what a student contributes to a classroom. We may have bold and bright ideas — but often can’t take your class if we’re going to end up failing because we can’t be there every day. 

The truth is, even if you intend to accommodate disabled students, what you put on your syllabus matters. You’re going to lose a lot of us if your policy reads as rigid or inflexible because finding professors who respect disability is a vital aspect of our success. When your syllabus doesn’t support us, it makes it that much more stressful to get our accommodations met fairly and appropriately — especially those of us who struggle to self-advocate, or who are overcoming a history of being told we’re “stupid,” lazy and disorganized.

Naysayers to flexibility typically cite either a need to treat everyone exactly “equal” or a fear that they will be taken advantage of. We don’t all come from equal backgrounds, with equal advantages, equal abilities, equal health, equal financial stability or equal abilities. Treating everyone “equally” is not fair. Will someone someday — able or disabled — try to take advantage of a more flexible attendance policy? Of course. But the poor choices of a few students here and there should not determine the fate of all. Deal with those students individually as needed while continuing to educate the vast majority with understanding and compassion. 

Students who know you’re there to help them are less likely to spend time standing in the hallway, unable to get past their anxiety to walk in your door.

Students who have a sudden low blood sugar bout will be more willing to walk in late if they know they won’t be chastised.

Students who struggle with the pace of their auditory comprehension in class will be more relaxed and comfortable following what they can in class if they know they’ll have access to the professor’s notes before or after.  

Students who have missed a few days in a row due to a flare are far more likely to come back to class ready to learn if they received help catching up, with the support of their professionals. Isn’t that preferable to losing a student who is trying their best because of a rigid attendance policy? I would think so. 

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash