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Unpacking How College Policies Impact Disabled Students

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Accommodations are not about giving an advantage but removing barriers that hinder learning.

Entering a college classroom on the first day evokes a mix of excitement and trepidation. Will the professor be engaging? Are the assignments interesting? Can the course load be managed? For many students, these questions dominate their thoughts. However, for disabled students, the concerns can be more complicated and personal as they navigate an educational landscape often structured without their unique challenges in mind.

Let’s explore school policies that can negatively impact disabled students.

Attendance Policies

Though intended to promote engagement and classroom interaction, attendance policies often present considerable hurdles for students who have medical appointments, flare-ups of their condition, or other health-related issues that require them to miss classes.

The decision to miss a class due to disability-related circumstances is not casual but a carefully weighed choice amidst pain, illness, or mental distress.

We see a poignant perspective on this topic from Mighty contributor Molly Emily. In Molly’s article “Why Attendance Policies Hurt Disabled and Chronically Ill Students” she shares:

“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.”

Late Submission and Absence Penalties

Policies that heavily penalize late submissions can disproportionately affect disabled students. Molly highlights this issue, noting that “disabled students might need extra time due to their disabilities, and rigid deadlines can put them at a disadvantage.”

As for attendance penalties, we see that in some instances, professors go as far as stating they will not provide missed materials, placing the responsibility on absent students to seek assistance from their peers (who aren’t always extensive note-takers and often get frustrated when asked for help).

One example of an ableist attendance policy involving a syllabus clause that permitted four absences without penalty but deducted 2% of the final grade for every subsequent missed class. Moreover, leaving early or arriving late counted as total absences, and students with only one absence received an additional 3% grade boost.

Internship and Fieldwork Requirements

Some programs have mandatory internships, fieldwork, or practical experiences in their curriculum. If these experiences are not flexible or accommodating of disabilities, it can limit opportunities for disabled students. “As someone with a mobility impairment, finding internships that accommodate my needs has been a struggle. Some programs don’t consider the diverse range of disabilities that students might have,” shares Molly.

Course Material Accessibility

Policies that don’t prioritize accessible course materials (e.g., not providing alternative formats like braille, audio, or electronic versions) can make it difficult for students with visual, auditory, or cognitive disabilities to engage with the curriculum fully.

Late Arrivals and Early Departures

Students’ needing to leave class early or arrive late reflects the complexities disabled students face. Numerous attendance policies tend to undermine or impose penalties for instances of coming late or needing to depart early. However, these situations should not be disregarded, as various factors could necessitate such actions. Panic attacks, sensory overload, digestive disabilities, pain, the need for medication or assistance, and low blood sugar are just a few of the issues disabled students might face. While some of these challenges can be managed with proactive planning and support, others may arise unexpectedly, highlighting the need for more compassionate and flexible attendance policies that consider the unique circumstances of disabled students.

Peer Review and Group Work

Policies that require peer review or group work can be challenging for disabled students who might face communication barriers, social anxiety, or difficulty coordinating with peers due to their condition.

Inflexible Exam Formats

Exams that heavily rely on timed in-person assessments may disadvantage students who require additional time, have test anxiety, or need alternative testing arrangements due to their disabilities.

Doctor’s Notes Dilemma

Some institutions no longer accept doctor’s notes as excused absences. This approach encourages sick students to attend class, potentially endangering their health and the health of their peers. It fails to consider the unpredictability of health issues and the difficulty in scheduling appointments outside of classroom hours.

Disability Disclosure Policies

If colleges have policies that make it difficult for students to disclose their disabilities or request accommodations, it can hinder their ability to access the support they need. This is true even for college applications, where disclosing health conditions could cost you admission. On the other hand, being forced to reveal an illness or disability to get flexibility or support can be stressful, causing social discomfort and potential misunderstandings among peers. Disabled students may fear being stigmatized or treated differently by their classmates, inadvertently leading to social isolation or a sense of not belonging. Sometimes, this disclosure could even impact references when starting a career. Joel, another Mighty contributor, shares more on this topic in “We Need to Talk About Ableism in Academia.

The Impact on Well-Being

For disabled students, ableist college policies can exacerbate health-related challenges. These policies often force disabled students to attend classes even when unwell, worsening physical discomfort. The stress of justifying absences under these policies contributes to heightened anxiety and depression, while potential accessibility barriers hinder accommodation implementation. Moreover, these policies discourage seeking medical help due to fear of repercussions, perpetuate social isolation by disconnecting students from peers, and ultimately lead to academic underperformance.

There are many reasons why the start of a new semester comes with a set of questions that go beyond the typical concerns for disabled students:

1. Will I Get Accommodations?

The thought of whether my professors will understand and provide the accommodations I need is a constant worry. Will they see beyond the stereotype and recognize that I’m just as eager to learn as anyone else?

2. Navigating Campus

I wonder how I’ll navigate a campus that might not be fully accessible. The fear of encountering barriers—be it stairs without ramps or inaccessible restrooms—makes me anxious about my daily routine.

3. Disclosure Dilemma

The decision of whether to disclose my disability to my professors is a dilemma. I fear being judged or treated differently if I choose to share this personal aspect of my life.

4. Attendance Battles

I worry about attendance policies that might penalize me for missing classes due to health reasons. Will they understand that sometimes my health takes priority?

5. Balancing Health and Academics

Finding the balance between managing my health and excelling academically feels like walking on a tightrope. The fear of pushing too hard and sacrificing my well-being is always there.

6. Social Isolation

The possibility of missing out on social events due to inaccessibility is a heavy concern. I fear being left out and disconnected from my peers.

7. Advocacy Fatigue

The constant need to advocate for myself and educate others about my needs can be overwhelming. I worry about running out of energy to keep fighting for understanding.

8. Impacting My Career

I wonder if my disability will affect my future career prospects. Will employers recognize my abilities and provide the accommodations I need?

9. Financial Strain

The added costs of assistive devices and medical expenses create financial worries. Balancing these expenses with college costs adds a layer of stress.

10. Dealing With Misconceptions

The weight of challenging stereotypes and misconceptions about disabilities is a responsibility I carry. It’s tiring to constantly educate others about what my disability truly means.

11. Mental Health Struggles

Juggling mental health challenges with academic demands constantly struggles. The fear of being judged or seen as incapable makes this battle even harder.

12. Unpredictable Fluctuations

The unpredictable nature of my health condition fills me with anxiety. What if a sudden flare-up affects my ability to attend classes or complete assignments?

A Call for Inclusive Education

In pursuing knowledge, equality should light the path for all students, including those with disabilities. Molly’s message resonates powerfully: accommodations aim to level the playing field, not confer an undue advantage. This principle should underpin every educational policy and practice. With flexibility, empathy, and understanding, colleges and universities can establish an inclusive environment where disabled students thrive.

By reexamining attendance policies, embracing adaptable testing methods, and prioritizing accessibility, educational institutions can set the stage for a more inclusive future. These issues call for recognizing the diverse needs of all students and cultivating a culture of empathy and acceptance.

In essence, the accurate measure of an educational institution’s success lies not solely in academic achievements but in its ability to empower every individual, regardless of ability, to soar to their fullest potential.

Getty image by LumiNola

Originally published: August 15, 2023
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