My (Very) Hastily Written Response to Tenured Radical

Claire Potter of Tenured Radical wrote a very nice piece today (yesterday on the East Coast) entitled “Do Attendance Policies Discriminate Against Disability?” in response to some well-earned criticism she’d received on a previous post. I wanted to respond to this most recent article at length for two reasons: (1) because, as my last post made clear, these are issues around which I have a good deal of experience, and (2) because I think it’s really important to point out that asking questions is a really good thing. When Potter ended her post by asking her readers what she was missing, I did a mental happy dance. Before you read the rest of this post, I want to urge you to read the piece that inspired it. Also, read the comments. This is one of those rare times that doing so is really worthwhile.

Okay… now that you’re done, I want to throw a few thoughts into the mix. First though, a few disclaimers:

  • I wrote this post unusually quickly.
  • This post includes things I want “able-bodied” faculty and admins to know, but it’s also got advice for folks with disabilities in it too. I don’t think it’s especially confusing, but it’ worth keeping in mind.
  • This post is not all encompassing, and I imagine I’ll be writing on this subject for a long time
  • My ability status has fluctuated quite a lot, so while I feel like I know how to make my way in the world while living with a disability, I don’t feel comfortable identifying as “disabled.” I think of myself more as “temporarily able-bodied,” except when I’m not… like right freakin’ now, for example. (See my last post for the details)
  • I want to be VERY clear that everybody’s experience is different, and that I can really only speak with authority about MY *mobility* issues. I do not speak on behalf of people with disabilities.

Now, in responding to this piece, I’m writing from a fairly unique position. In the past ten years (including right now) there have been four different times that I’ve required accommodations as a result of physical impairment, first at the (private) high school I attended, second at Bryn Mawr (a small liberal arts college, or SLAC), and twice now as a graduate student at UC Irvine.

Potter points out that oftentimes SLACs, cuddly though they are in many ways, are also fairly inhospitable climates for people with disabilities. While this can certainly be true, it is not always the case. Bryn Mawr did a really good job taking care of me. I was the hall advisor on “the accessible hall,” so I lived alongside several other people with mobility impairments. (Yes, we were all kind of lumped together, but it was nice to have a next door neighbor who “got it,” and there were plenty of folks on the hall who didn’t have mobility issues. The only people who thought of it as “the accessible hall” were the folks who… needed an accessible hall.) If my memory serves me correctly, we all did pretty well. Of course, it sucked that some of the historic buildings were inaccessible, but the campus culture was extremely sensitive to accessibility issues. I can honestly say that I never heard anybody—students included—complain about an event being moved, or a class being held in a different building. It’s hard for resentment like that to exist in a community where you know practically everybody. I also never heard “I’m sorry, we just can’t do that” at Bryn Mawr, but I have heard it at UCI… so there you go.

Another good tip Potter offered was that people with disabilities should, if at all possible, tour college campuses to get a sense of the accessibility situation. That is great advice, but the most important thing to do is have a conversation—in person or on the phone—with the person you’re going to be interacting with in Disability Services. If the institution you’re planning to attend focuses on meeting legal requirements and little else, it’s not going to be a good place for you. In the same way that you’re supposed to shop for a doctor, you need to shop for an on-campus advocate. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful Disability Services Coordinator at Bryn Mawr, and she made my life significantly easier.

Side note: this is another double-edged sword for SLACs; in my case, the one person charged with making sure I and every other student with a disability got accommodations was a total rock star. Had she not been a rock star, those four years could have sucked. There are plenty of tradeoffs at big schools too: you’re less likely to have a personal relationship with your coordinator, and there’s a lot more in the way of paperwork and red tape to deal with. The campuses are also bigger. So pick your poison. I definitely prefer the former. I was also lucky enough to receive boatloads of financial aid to attend both high school and college, so… coming from a place of privilege.

Speaking of red tape, it can be really hard to know what you’re going to need to get through college, and how exactly to go about getting it. Because college is a new life experience, it necessarily brings up new issues for which one is unprepared. The most important accommodation I had in the course of my undergraduate career wasn’t about where my classes were or attendance policies, or even being excused from classes during inclement weather. No… turned out I really needed a new mattress every year. Can’t say I’d seen that coming when I was getting myself ready to go to college. What your students need may surprise you, but keep in mind that it may also surprise them.

Less surprising: I don’t know if this is true everywhere, and the situation could be unique to students I’ve taught, but I’ve been led to believe that visiting students with disabilities don’t always get the same kind of institutional support from disability services that the rest of the student community receives. So if you’re planning to study abroad—in the US or elsewhere—make sure you know what the institution you’re visiting will (and won’t) do to accommodate you, and what forms of documentation they need from you to do so.

I would talk about the perils of relying on documentation to determine ability status, but that’s already been done beautifully by Emma Whetsell in the comments section of the original article. Props to you, Emma.

Also, if you’re a course instructor, PLEASE mention disability services on the first day of class. Students absolutely should be proactive about getting the accommodations they need, but your mentioning it doesn’t just encourage them, it helps normalize and validate human difference in a way that is vitally important. A lot of instructors work hard to reduce the stigma around mental health services on campus; we need to do the same for disability services.

I’m going to close this meandering blog post by (1) saying another big thank you to Claire Potter for responding to this issue in such a respectful way, and (2) by reminding everybody out there in the humanities and social sciences that ability is a really really important and underutilized lens of analysis. We need to accommodate students, but we also need to integrate Disability Studies into our syllabi. If what we teach is a reflection of our values, the academy still has quite a lot of work ahead of it on this particular score.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

7 thoughts on “My (Very) Hastily Written Response to Tenured Radical

  1. At your prompting, I’ll leave a few comments. First, you have a clear set of suggestions here, and that’s great. Also, brava for sharing so openly with your readers. Entirely apart from disability services, the general tenor of your comments to be prepared, clarify one’s needs, and set objectives are always important for undergraduates broadly and grad students as well — everyone will encounter unexpected difficulties, and not being prepared can create as much of a struggle as dealing with the challenge itself. Likewise, your suggestions to instructors are helpful — yes, I do cover the “Students with Disabilities” topic on the first class and in my syllabuses, but it’s something that needs to be included in course contents as well and returned to during the semester when it’s possible to do so.

    My only real contribution would be to add to those preparations and suggestions an understanding of jurisdictions for the various legal responsibilities an institution has and the channels through which reporting and enforcement occur (or do not occur, as is often the case…). In the USA, having students qualify for federal aid also means reporting attendance records, which was the prompt that drew me into the discussion. In other words, the school or professor may have limited options — very often this means (as Maddie Knickerbocker noted) a divergence between policy and practice, or for the concrete example, mis-recording attendance. While that’s often a fast way for good-willed people to solve problems, it’s also where ethical lapses and abuse go to hide… And there is indeed abuse, discrimination, and exploitation on campuses — subjectivity is complicated, and disability configures with race, gender, and class as well as other power relations endemic to the academy in complicated ways. So, be wary of the divergences between policy and practice even when they’re good-willed; formalized processes may be inconvenient, but they’re often in place for the protection of those who may be more vulnerable to abuse, discrimination, and/or exploitation. The risks for a white male with a learning disability are not the same as those for a minority female with a physical disability, &c.

    I’d suggest students with a disability also make a point of knowing at least in general terms about the Clery Act and Patsy Mink Act/Title IX. Though focused on gender, they cover much ground.

    I don’t work in Disability Studies as a scholar, but I was fortunate to co-edit a volume on the topic from a conference proceedings ten years ago and had an office-mate for 5 years focused on the area — I don’t pretend to have broad or up-to-date knowledge in the area. That said, I’ve made a point of reading work by Sally Hayward (the office mate) and Heidi Janz as it comes available. I highly recommend Janz’s work.

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  2. At your prompting, I’ll leave a few comments. First, you have a clear set of suggestions here, and that’s great. Also, brava for sharing so openly with your readers. Entirely apart from disability services, the general tenor of your comments to be prepared, clarify one’s needs, and set objectives are always important for undergraduates broadly and grad students as well — everyone will encounter unexpected difficulties, and not being prepared can create as much of a struggle as dealing with the challenge itself. Likewise, your suggestions to instructors are helpful — yes, I do cover the “Students with Disabilities” topic on the first class and in my syllabuses, but it’s something that needs to be included in course contents as well and returned to during the semester when it’s possible to do so.

    My only real contribution would be that students with a disability add to those preparations and suggestions an understanding of jurisdictions for the various legal responsibilities an institution has and the channels through which reporting and enforcement occur (or do not occur, as is often the case…). In the USA, having students qualify for federal aid also means reporting attendance records, which was the prompt that drew me into the discussion. In other words, the school or professor may have limited options — very often this means (as Maddie Knickerbocker noted) a divergence between policy and practice, or for the concrete example, mis-recording attendance. While that’s often a fast way for good-willed people to solve problems, it’s also where ethical lapses and abuse go to hide… And there is indeed abuse, discrimination, and exploitation on campuses — subjectivity is complicated, and disability configures with race, gender, and class as well as other power relations endemic to the academy in complicated ways. So, be wary of the divergences between policy and practice even when they’re good-willed; formalized processes may be inconvenient, but they’re often in place for the protection of those who may be more vulnerable to abuse, discrimination, and/or exploitation. The risks for a male with a learning disability are not the same as those for a female with a physical disability, and that only grows more complex as gender, sexuality, and race enter the fray (with class, rank, grad/undergrad, institutional position, &c).

    I’d suggest students with a disability also make a point of knowing at least in general terms about the Clery Act and Patsy Mink Act/Title IX. Though focused on gender, they cover much ground.

    I don’t work in Disability Studies as a scholar, but I was fortunate to co-edit a volume on the topic from a conference ten years ago and had an office-mate for 5 years focused on the area — I don’t pretend to have broad or up-to-date knowledge in the area. That said, I’ve made a point of reading work by Sally Hayward (the office mate) and Heidi Janz as it comes available. I highly recommend Janz’s work.

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  3. A lot of great thoughts here, James. Thank you so much for sharing. Your comments about federal aid were what originally prompted me to contact you, because–while, as you mentioned, there’s a disconnect between policy and practice on this more often than not–I’m not clear on who exactly is held liable for reporting this data? To ask the question another way, if a student suddenly found that their financial aid was in jeopardy, who would have reported that info? The registrar? Financial Aid? The very thought disturbs me, but I’m glad you brought it up.

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    • I was probably a bit unclear — if a school were to be found non-compliant in its responsibilities regarding students who receive federal aid (such as not taking attendance, faking attendance, &c), it doesn’t jeopardize one student’s loans/grants. It potentially makes the school’s students (plural) ineligible to use federal aid at that school.

      My understanding is that the reporting is relatively new, so I don’t know a threshold where it would become a federal aid report. Most likely the student would be dropped from the course(s) first (Registrar would process this issue for reporting). Here in Canada the same attendance requirement exists for two reasons (1. students are eligible for student loans, and 2. international students are permitted to enroll), but since enforcement isn’t strong, compliance seems to be sporadic.

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      • Very interesting. This is all news to me… in no small part because so few professors even take attendance. I wasn’t ever told I had to take attendance (I’ve always chosen to, but just because it helps me remember names). I imagine there would have to be evidence of pretty serious malfeasance /fraudulent activity on the part of an institution–probably in spheres extending beyond attendance reporting–for the hammer to come down. All of this is to say (in my entiely uneducated opinion) that I think the lack of compliance is less because schools recognize these policies as discriminatory, and more because the policy isn’t really communicated to faculty unless the school is already in pretty serious hot water.

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