Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Clap your hands if you believe in students with disabilities.

Boy, I must really trust you guys, because this is my truly despicable side.

When I used to instruct during grad school at Giant R1 U, I had, you know, maybe one or two students a quarter in a class of 200 that would come to me with a form to sign, saying that they needed special assistance. Note-takers, usually. I don't really remember, because they never made much of a fuss about it, and it didn't cause me any extra strife. So I thought nothing of it.

Suddenly, here I am at Small Private U, where the median income of my students is roughly equal to the gross national product of Papua, New Guinea. And that's the STUDENTS. It's probably just their ALLOWANCE, for Chrissake. And every semester, without fail, I have one or two per class that want me to sign stuff for them. Sometimes more. That's in a class of maybe 20 kids. Seriously??

Well, I teach statistics, so there are a number of interpretations. Either students with "disabilities" are more likely to attend small, liberal arts colleges, or they're just whiny little shits who want every advantage they can have. Some of them might even actually BELIEVE they have disabilities, because college is hard for them and stuff. But sometimes, college being hard doesn't mean you have a learning disability. Sometimes it just means you're DUMB.

These kids all want their tests sent a week in advance to a special room they can take their tests in with twice the amount of time as the rest of the students. Geez, with three hours to do my stats exams - and my tests are open note! - how can you NOT pass them? Yay! Special Services turned a "D" student into a "B" student! Can I tell you what a pain in my ass it is to remember to send over and pick up these exams at different times than everyone else's? And how about when I've graded them all and whoops! I forget these extras from the Whiny Kid office. Never mind! I'm not done yet! I'll grade a few more!

Ok. Once in a blue moon, I come across a student that I think might actually have ADHD so severe that they need extra help. And I'm glad we offer that service. But do we have to offer it to every little bitch that gets a note from their well-paid counselor saying that they're "special?"

I feel better now. But did I just buy a one-way ticket to Hell, no stopovers?

Callie =)


  1. OOOOOoooooooo... With all due respect to the legitimate bipolar people in the world, please let me just tell this teensy-weensy story: Had a student one semester. She did ok. No disabilities form. Next semester, she took a different class with me and showed up on the first day with the disabilities form. First exam rolled around and most students finished it within 30 minutes. The girl took the exam in Special Room for Students with Disabilities. She spent five (yes, FIVE) hours on the exam. Unsupervised. There alone with her cellphone and chacha and whatever. Naturally, she "earned" an impressive grade. The law required me to let her do this. REQUIRED me. Wouldn't it be a bit more honest for the wealthy kids to ask their psychiatrists to write them notes demanding that the kids be allowed to cheat?

  2. P.S. I think the girl's disability was named NeedtocheatviaiPhoneitis. What's that mean in Latin?

  3. My colleague who chairs the natural and physical sciences department is fit to be tied. One of his pre-med special snowflakes has a note saying he needs to have unlimited extra testing time and a word bank for every test where the rest of the class is required to identify body parts by sight alone. Who wants this guy as their doctor when he has to pull out the word bank to figure out what he's looking at?

    I don't doubt there are lots of people with disabilities who can succeed in college with a little extra help, but some of the accommodations we're asked to provide are not reasonable by any stretch of the imagination. In real life, there will not be unlimited time to complete major work. The word bank will not be available during surgery. And would someone please tell me what "reasonable relaxation of attendance policy" is supposed to mean? I find my definition and the students' are always vastly different.

  4. I get a few of these in my lower div courses. I generally take my laptop to proctor so that the disability people can email me if there's a question about the test since I'm apparently incapable of catching my own typos.

    I once had a student with "accommodations" who had the disability office email me 5 times during one test. He was asking questions about definitions and how to do problems. Imagine the following email:

    "Dear CMP, John wants to know what 'addition' is. Sincerely, Pitiable Person Who Must Email These Questions"

    Sure. That could be a very legitimate question in some situations. However, the test question the student needed to answer was "What is addition?"

    The real kicker was when this student showed up 40 minutes into the test and proceded to ask me questions about half of the problems on the test. For every single one of them the only thing I could say was: I can't answer that question without telling you the answer to the problem.

    My conclusion about that student was that he wasn't disabled or at least his disability wasn't his problem. It was the mere fact that he was unable to/too lazy to take the time to learn the basic vocabulary of the course or practice problems that were on the HW.

    That student is the kind of student who really leaves a bad taste in my mouth for the lot. Although, I have had students who had legitimate issues and were very well served by the accommodations they received.

    I just wish that there were some flexibility in the "law" for the spirit of the exam. A formula sheet on a quiz over memorization of equations is not in the spirit of the quiz. A TI-10000 calculator on an exam where I'm testing their ability to identify and use the proper derivative rules isn't in the spirit of the exam (for those of you who don't know TI-89s and higher compute derivatives for the students).

    I think accommodations can be a great thing but only if they are fair to the other students and the primary instructor has reasonable control of what accommodations are allowed.

    On another topic, I think that more learning disabled students end up at small privates is that their parents know smaller schools may be better equipped to accommodate their children. Plus they may also know that their kids have been too babied and may not be able to cope all alone at a big school.

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  13. Another possible explanation is that rich families have the resources to get their kids tested and diagnosed (and treated, where possible), while people with less money, no insurance, etc, may not have that option, or might not think minor disabilities are worth the significant costs associated with diagnosis and therapy.

    So you end up with higher proportions of diagnosed disabilities at colleges where students have higher incomes.

  14. Clap. Clap. Clap. As a student in Grad school, I was a case of undiagnosed ADHD. Now, as an undergrad, I had built up a friendbase before the upper division (pun intended!) courses so that I was able to pretty much negate the lack of focus issues of the disorder. A high IQ was enough to counter the disorder in the lower division (pun still intended!) courses. I graduated Magna Cum Laude. In grad school, however, there was no such base of friends and I had chosen to go to a school where I knew absolutely nobody. That spelled disaster to my promising Math career. I can't say that I would like to go back now and try Grad school with the proper access to disability accommodations. I am happily employed doing what I love, teaching. But, it might have been quite different had I been diagnosed sooner. So, while it might seem that students use a pretend disability to milk the system (Unfortunately, this is true.) But a math student who spends his time doodling instead of paying attention might not be lazy, but lost in a different world. Honestly.

    @StyleGeek: I was likely not diagnosed sooner because I was poor. I guess that you could say that I was too poor to pay attention! (I am going to stop with the bad jokes...for tonight!)

    Mathsquatch *fidgets* out.

  15. I don't doubt that some people out there using their disability as an excuse or crutch. But I see the flip side. I am the flip side. And many disabilities are legitimate.

    As a kid I'd always been a slow reader, poor speller, and was generally reading below grade level. I quickly realized I was in the “dumb” reading group and “smart” math groups. As a teen, I found myself getting angry at authors of essays because I didn't realize they were writing satire. Later in college, I couldn't seem to sound out words in Spanish. Spanish is supposed to be phonetic and my teacher was baffled that I couldn’t pronounce written Spanish text without hearing the whole word. Eventually someone suggested I might have a learning disability. So I went through some comprehensive testing with the disability center. Turns out I do have an LD; I have dyslexia.

    My school district and parents probably didn't pick up on it because I was an above average student in an average public district. Or maybe it's because my parents were educators and didn't think their snowflake could have a problem? Who knows... I rocked at math and science so maybe people ignored it for that reason.

    I got accommodations in college: extended time on tests and the option of a note-taker. I took full advantage of the extended time but never used the note-taker. I really fail to see how that was unreasonable. Prior to my diagnoses, I had been running out of time on tests not for lack of knowledge, but because it takes me longer to read the questions and hand-write responses than most. Should I really have gotten B’s in my core science courses just for not being able to get questions before the timer ran out rather than the A’s I was capable of getting with a little extra time?

    I'll be done with grad school soon. I’ve found that in courses, professors don't time their tests. They’re interested in content, not speed. As far as my research goes I still read the papers and do the writing just as well as others. But yes, it takes me a bit longer to do the reading. My science is solid and I keep getting praised for the content and delivery of my presentations. Though I received accommodations in undergrad I simply don’t have an unfair advantage in my research.

    Accommodations haven’t changed the way I work or the quality of my work. In life we each rely on our strengths to compensate for our weaknesses. I realize there are students that abuse the system. But a student that receives accommodations in college will not last long at a job or grad school that’s too hard for their skill set. So why worry? Life will sort things out.

  16. I used to resent the extra work that students with disabilities cost me, too. I got over it. This is because I eventually got enough good students, like Bipolar Beth, who clearly really did need those accomodations, and clearly did deserve to have them.

    The key to making me realize this was that enough of these students really did want to learn. If any student who wants to learn, as opposed to grade-grub, overstays your office hours, if you have nothing else imminent, do you kick out the student?

    One of these students was a blind special-ed major in my Intro-Astronomy-for-non-majors class. For her term paper, she put together a presentation on sounds from space (from radio astronomy, magnetic, and plasma wave data) that was so cool, I could barely stand it, with Jupiter rumbling like thunderbolts and Saturn ringing like a bell. Don't forget the different perspective these people can bring.

  17. P.S. Yes, I KNOW sounds can't travel through the vacuum of space. Many wave phenomena that can travel through space can make sounds when played through a speaker. What's the matter, didn't you ever see "Contact," the 1997 film based on the novel by Carl Sagan?

  18. Every time someone falsely claims special needs, they make it harder for:
    those who really have them,
    those who have to spend unwarranted extra time on them,
    anyone whose place they take in a program/ school/etc.,
    anyone who might have to be treated/tested/represented by them in the future.

    So yes, it really does matter.

    And by the way, "reasonable" accomodations do not legally mean "unlimited." That's a school simply wimping out.

  19. Like Perfesser Frankenstien, I have had people who skate and people who don't. Our school takes a very reasonable approach: they need to have an official diagnosis, and they don't get cut any slack beyond a reasonable accommodation.

    I have two right now. One of them I know well, and is a hard worker like Beth. One of them I don't know at all, so I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt... but e-mailing me the evening before the morning she wants to take it, with a request for an appointment at the disability office, seems pretty flaky. We'll have to see how she works out over the semester.

  20. Yes, I got 'em, too. But extra time for exams is no problem at all. My exams require students to write, so having the extra time helps anyone. I wouldn't complain if everyone asked for more time on exams. The ones with real problems finish in 25 minutes and think they earned an "A".

  21. My advisor would do away with all accommodations or asterisk* a transcript for them. He's been burned significantly by cheating at that far off, poorly supervised, testing room.

    On the other hand, I saw a student make good (and not full) use of the allowances. During the first test, I was seriously concerned. He was becoming visibly agitated, slamming the test down, crumpling up his notes, and not in the showy-see-I'm-angry way of chimpanzees. He requested extra time in a low distraction environment and was given about 50% more time immediately after the main test.

    It made a drastic improvement in his demeanor during and performance on the test, I was impressed.

    That said, where is the boundary? The old building had no elevator to the floor I was given a desk on. I happened to have no students who needed one. The new building is compliant with every standard known to man. That is obviously an improvement in accommodations.

    On the other hand, my little sister had Down's Syndrome. She spent quite a few years in High School, in the special ed program, and it did a good job preparing her to live only partly assisted. But she did receive a High School Diploma. She was never going to fool an employer with it, but that's an extreme end. Surely there is someplace between these two where a line should be drawn.

  22. Apparently, CMP gets special accommodations to repost his comment. Itchy trigger finger?

    EnglishDoc, I don't buy your argument that the real world doesn't allow for extra time. Sure, some tasks have to be completed immediately but most of the time you work at night or weekends until you finish the project. If anything, the real world has fewer instances of high stakes testing so accommodations like the ones we give are not relevant.

    I may be lucky but the worst accommodations I've ever dealt with is extended time on an exam which typically doesn't result in the student getting an A anyway (maybe they still do better but I can't tell). I agree that there are an increasing number of students receiving that benefit.

  23. Solution sounds simple to the original poster - don't make the exams open book. Instead, provide an equation sheet or some other form of notes. Or limit students to 1 index card worth of notes. And of course jam their cell phone reception.

    My experience is that giving students more time just gives them more rope: they second-guess themselves and panic their way into solidly bad grades.

  24. Of course I believe it. But the system is so abused it's a joke.

    I tutored for Disabled Student Services one semester and I had 1 guy with a disability and 7 lazy assholes. You can't tell me there's a disability that keeps a student from:
    buying the book
    going to bed before 30 minutes after last call

    One semester when I was a TA there was a guy who was legitimately disabled taking P-chem. He was literally allowed infinite time on tests. No, not "X% more time than the rest", literally no time limit. If he can't solve three problems in the EIGHT hours I had to proctor his exam before he gave up, what the fuck is he going to do with a chemistry degree anyway?

    Now I have a kid who has some kind of disability that is so bad, that just like when he was in my physics class 2 years ago, he's getting 11's (out of 100) in chemistry. For "What kinds of imtermolecular forces are present in this substance?" he answered "carbon". And you're not allowed to ask. Here's the kicker, this guy, who thinks "11.087634555" (fuck sig figs, right?) is a "molecular formula", hasn't gone to DSS. He's just going around taking a bunch of science classes and flunking them. He already transfered from somewhere else where he was getting Cs and Bs in social science classes (how? I have no fucking idea, but maybe he's only a moron in science). Why isn't someone advising him "You fail all of these classes, stop taking them". He got a C in physics lab 2 years ago - his science credit is covered - MOVE ON!!!

    And no, it isn't a language thing, he's a "regular" American.

    And no, it isn't a literacy thing,
    1) he passed those frigging social science classes
    2) he can read the syllabus and ask obsessive questions about extra credit from day one (like he did in physics)

    What is wrong with a system where a guy 4 months into physics can think "F = ma" is a free body diagram and no one says anything about it, but a girl in chemistry for non majors can get a separate room for tests because "I twirl my hair when I'm nervous and it's embarrassing. This way the other kids can't see me." (If that was your "disability", and DSS told you your professor can't ask what it is, why would you volunteer that information?)

    The system is fucked up.

  25. I've had students with disabilities who put in unbelievable amounts of effort, and I've had slackers who magically show up with notes from the Student Disability Center a week before the final. I'm not allowed to question the SDC's judgment about what is needed, so I don't. But I agree with Mitchell that the abusers do a great disservice to those with legitimate disabilities.

  26. So many things to comment on here.

    1. The more money you have the more doctors you can go to until you find the one that will diagnose your Speshull Precious with *something* to explain why they aren't as speshull as you've always told them they are. There was a doctor in town a neighboring town that you could go to, tell him what your symptoms were, and he'd print you out a diagnosis. Anyone with access to the internet could "self diagnose" and this doctor would "make it official."

    2. I had a student years ago that was legitimately diagnosed late in life with multiple learning diabilities. She used them as an excuse for everything she'd ever done- from juvenile detention to regular brushes with the law to felony convictions. But now, well that just wasn't her fault.

    Our policy was that students had to formally request accommodations every semester. You don't ask, you don't get. Her accommodations included printed notes, secluded testing and extra time- no big deal, right? Oh, did forget that she was an Allied Health major that would be working in stressful (ER, OR) environments where being distracted could literally be a life-and-death issue? Her second day at a clinical site she got cross-wise with her site supervisor because she forgot some simple bit of protocol (failure to properly display ID or somesuch) and left in a huff because we weren't being "reasonable" to her plight- it wasn't her fault she forgot to put it on. Just like it wouldn't be her fault that she forgot to check a patient's chart or read a label before changing an IV bag.

    She was also one that thought a level playing field meant she got an advantage over everyone else. When an instructor provided copies of notes for the whole class instead of just her that wasn't accommodating because she didn't benefit from it in any way.

    Thankfully she's moved on from a Health profession major to something where she couldn't do as much damage- finance and banking or something (I kid- far as you know.)

    3. From my experiences the vast majority of students with disabilities know they have more to overcome and work harder to do so. If only all students put in half as much effort.

  27. I've had a few where it seemed legitimate, and some where it seemed like an over-protected student was demanding to be pampered. (a word bank? I don't think so) Sometimes I wonder if we're really helping some of these students, or if they'd be better off in "the real world" if, instead of making accommodations, we taught them to cope.

  28. Apologies to Ben et al. Not an itchy finger but a hour long fight with my wireless connection. Had to reconnect each time I clicked ANYTHING last night. In future, I'll save and wait 'til morning....

  29. The mean, mean part of me wishes that I could get extra time to give my lectures on the days when my brain is full of mush because of the sedatives I take so that I don't dream about the children whose arms and legs got blown off by landmines in Mozambique BUT who wanted to learn English from the pasty white girl.

    That's the mean part. I've definitely had both who needed it and worked hard, kids could smell the money on that disability form.

  30. I feel your pain. I've had great students who powered through and did splendid work despite their very real disabilities, and precious little ones who suddenly decided they had learning disorders once they realized they were failing.

    The saddest misuse of the "disability" card was by someone who thankfully was NOT my student: she was the child of family friends; born prematurely and with severe developmental disabilities--so much so that when she reached legal age, her parents received state-sponsored permanent disability payments to continue caring for her.

    And yet she managed to earn a "C" average at a local junior college (with lots of help), then transfer to a 4-year public university where she got accommodations up the wazoo (note-takers, extra time for exams, you name it). Meanwhile, said school was cutting enrollments and turning away qualified students because of funding cuts -- while lavishing God knows how many resources on a student officially deemed mentally incapable of living independently or being self-supporting.

    The dangerous flip side to the "anyone can be diagnosed with a disability" trick y'all have described in such gruesome detail above is the "anyone can overcome any disability, given enough accommodations" canard. It's not fashionable to say this, but some people simply aren't cut out for college. Period.

  31. "or they're just whiny little shits who want every advantage they can have."
    I will go with that answer. At the R4 where I earned my PhD, I had two students TOTAL who needed accommodations in the entire five years I was there including the courses I taught or TAed. Two total.

    In my first term at T5 school, I had three students who *sniffle* really needed *sniffle* extra time for this time *blow*. I have no idea where these special, special, ankle biters ended up. I just hope they are not a surgeon, airline pilot, whore, or any profession where time is of the essence.

  32. My favorite is Executive Functioning Disorder. It means "tends not to make beneficial choices." And it sounds very Wall Street.

    I'd be tempted to say 90% of teenagers and college students have this "disorder." But only the wealthy ones can buy a diagnosis.

    My wife once taught at a ritzy high school. More than half of her class had "accommodations" of some kind, and some of these things were a whole page long. This student needed time-and-a-half on tests, this one needed double time, this one needed unlimited time.

    The best part was that most of them also required "preferential seating." Isn't it mathematically impossible to give more than half the class "preferential" anything?

    She ended up arranging the desks in a giant semi-circle.

  33. @Ruby: It is impossible to give more than 50% of a class "above average" anything (assuming, of course that you are only comparing with the class and not the world in general. Think of comparing a classroom of students with each other versus comparing a classroom of Yale students to the rest of the world.), but it is not impossible to give more than 50% of a class "preferential" treatment. For instance, let the "prefered" students have two extra days to complete the homework. The others are screwed. No preferential treatment for them!

    Mathsquatch out.

  34. Wait, that's a thing? Executive Functioning Disorder?!?! One of mine last year had Avoidance Disorder, where he (no I am not kidding) AVOIDED CLASS. I avoid the dentist, but I didn't know it was a disorder.

  35. I'm siding with EnglishDoc on time.
    No, the "real world" really does not always allow extra time. Friends of mine who are attorneys repeatedly tell me that being able to think on their feet is one of their prime talents--you can only get so many recesses. Health care workers in emergency settings, police, fire fighters--they all have to work on a tight schedule. So do cooks, servers, theatre directors, tailors...most of life will not simply allow you to set your own pace.

  36. You guys are awesome. I'm glad this is my vacation home. That is all.

  37. I had one guy this past summer who *needed* to bring a *pillow* to class. At first, I thought, "You don't need special permission to sit on a pillow," but then I realized it wasn't for his bum. WTF?!

    1. I'm not sure I understood. What was he doing with the pillow? Taking a nap? Resting his tired eyes? Relaxing a little when stressed out?

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