Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Does DSS = Disabled Snowflake Services?

Like most universities, my campus has a Disabled Student Services office, which determines what types of accommodations or assistance disabled students receive, and coordinates things like note-takers and exams. I'm always very attentive to any DSS notices, and go out of my way to ensure that any disabled students in my classes receive all approved accommodations.

But disabled students can, just like any other students, be snowflakes and assholes.

My History of the Rodent Republic course last semester had two DSS students, young women who were clearly friends and who sat together at the side of the classroom. They each had a learning disability of some sort, and their DSS accommodations allowed them extra time on examinations (double time, in this case), which meant that they took the exams in the DSS office rather than in the classroom with the other students.

They did pretty crappy on the mid-term, and were doing pretty poorly in general. I'm not sure whether this was attributable to their disabilities, or to the fact that they spent much of each class period whispering to one another or playing on their computers.

The final exam was approaching, and I caved into my students' requests for a study guide. I don't really like doing this, but I already have one prepared, it basically just summarizes the main themes of the course, and providing one reduces the amount of whining and the number of complaints on evaluations.

I distributed the study guide a couple of weeks before the exam. At the end of that class period, my two DSS students came up to me and requested that, in addition to the guide, I would be able to tell the two of them what questions would appear on the final exam. They said that they understood the material, but that, due to their disabilities, they had trouble writing goods essays under the pressure of exam conditions, and that having the question beforehand would help them.

I was a taken a little off guard by the request, so I told them that I'd think about it and let them know. Later that evening, I wrote to them, letting them know that I felt it would be unfair to the other students if I extended them this consideration. I explained that I was not qualified to make evaluations about their disabilities, or about necessary accommodations, and that this was the responsibility of the Disabled Student Services office. I also told them that, if the people at DSS agreed with them, and requested that I give them the questions beforehand, I would be happy to comply.

I heard no more about it until a couple of months later, when I received my course evaluations for that class. In the pile were two identical comments:

"Professor is not sympathetic to the needs of disabled students."


  1. You handled it properly.

    At the place where I used to teach, students who had disabilities were required to make arrangements through the student services office for writing their exams. When that request was filed, the instructor would be formally notified and he or she would specify details such as what was allowed in the exam room, and so on.

    However, that same office would accept almost anything as a disability and sometimes any restrictions on additional material specified by the instructor were ignored accidentally on purpose, according for a former colleague.

    I had one student who claimed she suffered a condition brought on by "stress". The fact was that she was a lousy student and hoped to use that setting to weasel a few marks. Since I wasn't supervising her exam, I had no idea if she sneaked other material in with her. It wouldn't have surprised me if she did.

    Another student claimed a similar situation. When the exam in the main room was over, I was on my way to where he was to check on him only to see him coming in my direction. The first words he said were something like: "I can't BS you any longer." I don't remember if he passed the course but if he did, it would have been by a very narrow margin.

    There was a third one who tried all sorts of angles to get special privileges in order to avoid doing any work and get easy course credits. According to the student services office, he thought the exam was excessively hard because he took 8 hours to write it when 2 were allowed for everyone else. (Normally, we allowed about an hour extra time.) He apparently was on some sort of "medication" and appeared "flushed"--in other words, he showed up drunk as a skunk.

    But one student with a disability stood out as being exceptional. He was apparently dyslexic and didn't want any special privileges. He had worked for a while before becoming a student, so he had a good idea of how the real world functioned. He figured that since the workplace wasn't going to make many allowances for him, he wasn't going to ask for any. He simply rolled up his sleeves and did his work like everyone else. Judging by what he turned in, I had no idea that he was dyslexic. I wished I had more like him.

  2. OP, you did the right thing. I would have nicely said no on the spot, but sometimes it is hard to know what is 'above and beyond'.

    We are supposed to be empowering students to live as productive adults, and I think treating minor learning difficulties as though they require special accommodation actually makes these students start to perceive themselves as incapable in many ways. I have at least two learning disabilities that I can identify and I just learned ways to deal with them during my undergraduate degree. It wasn't easy, but dealing with it on my own made me stronger and, dare I say, helped to partially 'cure' these 'disabilities'. Constantly catering to these students is actually setting them back, not helping them to 'train' themselves how to cope on their own.

  3. This PISSES ME OFF.

    Disabilities and different learning styles are not an excuse. They are a challenge to be owned and overcome. And when these fuckheads pull this crap, they make ME and other responsible disabled people look bad.

    You should have failed them for the very question.

  4. The problem with accomodating certain "disabilities" in the classroom is that it lulls some students into expecting to be cossetted when they emerge from the university environment.

    You can't tell your employer "I have a learning disability so I need four weeks to complete this project instead of one." I mean you can, but you will be fired. You can't tell your employer "I have social anxiety so you can't call on me at meetings". I mean you can, but you will be fired.

    Or just not hired to begin with. I don't think universities do most students a service via the accomodations process. They should be helping these students function as normally as possible with the demands made of them, not using the disability to change the demands themselves.

    1. Have you ever heard of the ADA? Employers have to make reasonable accommodations just like universities do. You know, by LAW. Oh, and hiring discrimination is illegal. If you don't know that I hope you're not in charge of hiring anyone.

    2. And no, the goal shouldn't really be to help students "function as normally as possible." It should be to determine what the goals of the course requirements are, and help all students meet those goals. Some students are going to have to do that in a different way.

  5. You never would have been considered "sympathetic" unless you'd given them everything they wanted--full access to the quesitons you were going to ask on the test (an absolutely batshit, ridiculous request). "Reasonable accommodations" = extra time on the test, not a cheat sheet.

    A couple years ago, I had a student who wanted to be exempted from the class participation portion of the grade because she had bipolar disorder. My response to that request was that she "get me the documentation about that ASAP"--and by that I meant that she get me the documentation from student services, of course (as laid out in the syllabus with big bold links and phone numbers and contact information). I was fairly sure that student services was not prone to exempt people from entire graded portions of the class because of bipolar disorder, but I was just curious about the whole thing would go down. I previously worked in disabilities education, so I knew a few things about section 504, and how accommodations have to be "appropriate"--and letting someone skate free from portion of the class is not appropriate.

    Weeks ticked by. The student stopped coming to class. Then she emailed me around midterm, saying, "My doctor drafted a letter so that you'd let me out of participating in class, but she doesn't understand why you should have access to my medical history and thinks that your request is basically a violation of privacy."

    WTF? I told her that I didn't want to see any doctor's letter and that she needed to go through student services--but really, shouldn't a psychiatric professional know a few things about how this system works?

    The student had pretty much already failed on the basis of attendance alone, so she withdrew from the class. Therefore, I didn't have to read any evaluation that said that I wasn't appropriately sympathetic.

    I read the fine print on every letter I get from the student services office. Most students' accommodations include ONLY extended time on in-class tests and quizzes, but many students will try to pull one over on you, saying that their accommodations include extensions for out-of-class work. This is bullshit. Outside of class, they are responsible for prioritizing their work appropriately.

  6. Don't go off on disabled students because Adjunct happened to run into a few assholes. Assholes are assholes are assholes. And some happen to be disabled also. This was not a reasonable accommodation, which is why they could not get documentation from anyone. Screw them. But don't go on a hate rant against disabled students because of it.

    1. I don't think this is a rant against all disabled students; it's clearly about two in Defunct's class.

    2. I agree with Contemplative Cynic. This is a rant dedicated to manipulators who use their disabilities to take advantage. It certainly doesn't do them any good to do this.

    3. Likewise the comments. All of us have had disabled students who are doing their best, accommodations or no; all of us have had disabled students who are trying to use their diagnosis for scam points. The difference is pretty easily discerned.

    4. I was commenting on the comments, not the original post.

    5. Yeah, these comments are pretty atrocious.

  7. So frustrating! But no matter what you'd done, they'd have said that b/c they weren't pulling their weight.

    1. Whenever I had a student come to me and claim they needed special exam privileges because they had a disability, I sent them to the student services office to make a formal application to write it there. It wasn't up to me to determine whether their request was legitimate because I wasn't qualified to do so nor did I have the authority to grant them those privileges. Making that request formal kept it all above board.

  8. Defunct, you did the right thing.

    We don't have any kind of student services at Across the Seas U, but we do have increasing numbers who claim some kind of learning disability. Some are clearly legit, others probably aren't, but the only tools that have ever been put at my disposal are untranslated 20-page doctor's reports written in Capybara (which I don't squeak). We proffies are left to fend for ourselves to determine "reasonable accommodation," which our chair clearly expects, even if there isn't a legal/policy structure to compel the university to make such accommodations. It is not at all encouraging to see more and more of our students claiming disabilities, formally or informally, yet the corresponding installation of a student services office to assess these claims remains a fantasy.

    To make things worse, the general culture here seems to lack the strain of Protestant/settler bootstrapping that might allow them to power through and learn to overcome their disabilities, as Naughty Prof and Academic Monkey have suggested--through experience, apparently, so kudos to you!

  9. Isn't it SOP to have all requests for accommodations go through the office? Every SWD I've had knows that. I don't know what they were expecting.

  10. We are, fortunately, expressly forbidden to offer accommodations beyond those ordered on a form we receive from the office which deals with such matters.

    A few years back, some of the orders were pretty ridiculous, but it would appear that the person making those decisions currently has clues.

  11. We must understand that students are students and 'disabled students' in question here are just like other students. We have to understand that they have some impairments and we have to make sure that by our attitude we don't make them 'disabled'. People have impairments; Society makes them disabled.

    Dr Satendra Singh
    Coordinator, Enabling Unit
    Equal Opportunity Cell
    UCMS & GTBH, Delhi, India