Wednesday, May 12, 2010


The Undisclosed Dance

Much of the campus discussion about students with disabilities has revolved around ways to provide accommodations that are both effective and appropriate for the course. I've been struck by the goodwill exhibited (most of the time) on all sides.

That said, I'm seeing more of the flip side recently.

The policy on students with disabilities (including learning disabilities) says that they present themselves, with whatever documentation is appropriate, to the Office for Students with Disabilities. The OSD works with the student to determine which accommodations to ask for in which courses. The students then self-identify to their professors, and ask for whatever accommodations are needed. If the professor agrees, then that's that. If she doesn't, then sometimes there's some back-and-forth with OSD to determine a mutually acceptable accommodation.

The system works pretty well when students get in early and self-identify at the outset of the semester. It works less well when students wait until halfway or later to self-identify, but even then the faculty are usually able to do something.

The wrinkle comes when students exhibit all manner of symptoms, but refuse to self-identify. This can put the professor, and the college, in an awkward spot.

In discussions locally, we've come up with what I call the Undisclosed Dance. It's an attempt to balance concern for student success with respect for privacy and recognition of limited expertise. But it's pretty roundabout, and I have to admit that it feels a little silly.

A professor who sees a student struggling with what she suspects to be a learning (or other) disability can't just diagnose the student, or even ask the student if there's something he'd like to disclose. That's too invasive, and legally suspect. But a professor can suggest that the student seems to be struggling, and might want to talk to a counselor on campus. After meeting with the student, if it seems appropriate, the counselor is empowered to refer the student to OSD, which can discuss disabilities openly. Ideally, the student could then work out a request for accommodations, which he could take to the professor.

It's a multi-step process that involves a whole lot of pretending-not-to-know, and that's maddeningly inefficient, but it seems to keep everyone out of trouble. It relies quite a bit on a student's willingness to jump through hoops, but we haven't found a more elegant way around that if the student isn't willing to volunteer anything.

In microcosm, this little dance encapsulates much of what's awful, and great, about "bureaucracy." It's roundabout, and slow, and expensive, and redundant. But it respects privacy, it allows the student to opt out at any moment, and it allows the student who really needs help to get it. It reduces the chances of one big error, but multiplies the chances of little errors. And it's a pain to track.

To someone unaware of the various constraints at hand, I'm sure the whole dance just looks absurd. At some level, it is. But those constraints are real and valid, and disregarding them could do real harm.

So we dance. Grudgingly, awkwardly, and sometimes unwillingly, but we dance. The students are worth it.

I used to grade statics homework and one of the students had to repeat the class twice. She was working on her graduate degree in biomedical engineering, her undergrad was in biology so she needed to take a slew of basic engineering courses and she couldn't get past statics.

It wasn't work ethic, she'd turn in problem sets that were 20 pages long.

It wasn't that she didn't know the material, she never missed a point on homework (once i started accepting it late.)

It was that she'd bomb the test. First problem was perfect, better than the answer keys in terms of details.
Second problem was halfway done to the same perfect level.
Third problem wasn't started.

She clearly knew the material and was able to do the work, but she would not, could not, cut any corner. I'm not talking about sloppy work, i'm talking about clearly and neatly writting out every single step. It was painful to watch

Well said. And yes, the students are worth it, and the complexity of the dance does keep the student's well-being in the forefront of consideration.

One observation I'd add: it is/would be helpful for faculty members to have some expertise in recognizing the signals of one or another form of disability. Failing expertise, prior experience is helpful. Failing prior experience, some kind of orientation, by counseling/student disability staff, for new faculty is very helpful.

I know that I have become far more aware of, and less ignorant regarding, common signals of various forms of disability as the years of seniority have accrued and I have encountered variants of those disabilities.

As an example: having taught (and taken on an overseas field trip) a student diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome ("high-functioning autistic"), I am in the wake of that experience FAR better equipped to recognize signs of what may be related conditions amongst other students. In fact, I can look back to students from years back, prior to my Asperberg's orientation, who I think I would have recognized at that time as likely candidates for the dance.

In recognizing that we as teachers can't have the expertise the counselors do, prior experience (or an orientation) can sure help us recognize students who might be candidates for the counselors.


Dr Coyote
Dean Dad,

I'd love to see you take on this report"

PDF document

report of panel discussion:

Panel discussion

which complains about accommodations for learning disabilities at the collegiate level.

I've drafted a response, but since I'm the mother of a student with a learning disability (diagnosed in 2nd grade, by the way) I've got a dog in the hunt.
At my school, when we see a student struggling and suspect they might have a learning (or other) disability, it's suggested that we pull them aside, tell them that we notice that they're struggling, and give them "the menu" of on-campus services. We suggest they might consider tutoring, talking to their academic advisor, counseling, going to the ODS, etc. That way it's less confrontational in the respect you had mentioned.

The problem we have is that our school is an expensive for profit, and most students can't afford going through the (I'm told expensive) process of getting such a disability documented. Even if they know they have a disability, sometimes they just try to suck it up, and we can't give accommodation unless it's documented.
I've had the reverse problem: demands for accommodations from the parents of students who aren't officially identified (usually because the parents are afraid of a stigma).

Our administration's solution was to require the teacher to make accommodations as if the student had been identified (but without the extra resources that having an identified student in class would bring).
I've been writing on my blog about my struggles with a student who is not only "undisclosed," but seems not to be aware that he may have a learning disability. I am not qualified to diagnose him, and have been trying to persuade him to work regularly with a tutor who might be able to steer him toward more serious interventions. It has been extremely frustrating, for him and for me, and it seems impossible to me that I'm the first to notice his difficulties, but of course it's not within my power to say, "I think you have a learning disability. You need to go get tested." The most recent installment in this saga appears here:

and links to earlier installments appear at the beginning of that post. Thanks for calling attention to this problem; it's a big one.
but of course it's not within my power to say, "I think you have a learning disability. You need to go get tested."

Why not? Is there some law I don't know about? I just finished ed school and I don't remember them ever telling us that we weren't allowed to suggest this possibility. Of course, schools aren't crazy about it as it costs them money, but that's a different issue. Is it merely insulting, or is there some law for adult students that I'm unaware of?
There is no law about it as far as I know, but past experience has taught me that, as someone who is not qualified to diagnose learning disabilities, I have no business making such a suggestion. It will not cost my school money, as we have no facilities for LD testing; it is up to the student to provide evidence of LD if he wants special accommodations. It is simply unethical and unprofessional for someone who is not an LD specialist to take it upon themselves to "diagnose" a student, as DeanDad explains in this post. The most we can do is try to steer students toward people who ARE qualified to make such diagnoses.
From this same post at CHE:

1.View from the adjunct
Posted by adjunked on May 12, 2010 at 12:15pm EDT
I appreciate Dean Dad's humane take on the issue of students and disabilities. I'll simply add that higher education's reliance on contingent labor is at odds with so much of the work that he and other administrators do on this issue. Adjunct-contingents who often teach the remedial English and math coursework where learning disabilities appear don't have the time, don't get paid enough, and almost always don't have an office in which to speak privately with a student on a sensitive issue like a learning disability. In my experience, the students who may have a disability but do not disclose simply drop out.

2. Adjunked is right on.
Posted by Adjunct Mom on May 12, 2010 at 9:15pm EDT
Adjunked is absolutely right on. I have a child with an autism spectrum condition, and I simply don't trust that colleges and universities can ever do right by my child, or by students with multiple and various support needs, as long as these colleges and universities continue to blithely ignore the deep, disturbing, widespread repercussions of this exploitative employment structure. The effect of the system on students with developmental or psychological needs is one such repercussion. Faculty are the first, most important responders to students with special needs. Faculty cannot do this when they are not supported. Faculty -- TT and NTT -- are not supported by the two-tiered system, and therefore students of all kinds are not supported, no matter how excellent an office of student disability services there might be.

As an adjunct, I have dealt with students with disabilities, disclosed and undisclosed. I knew what to do with an undisclosed autistic student only because of my experience with my child and because I took a LOT of extra, unpaid time to consult with OSD to make sure I was providing the right kind of support to that student. I did it because I would expect nothing less for my child. I would do it again willingly and without pay if I believed that the institution was making the same kinds of sacrifices that I was, out of respect for these students. But of course, the institution is not making the same kinds of sacrifices; in fact it is profiting from them, and not to the benefit of these students.

I know that it is highly unlikely that my child will be taught by a faculty member who CAN provide the appropriate support, as much as that faculty member might want to. Or my child will be taught by a faculty member who WILL provide that support, but at personal rather than institutional expense. It is simply, outrageously wrong that institutions are shirking their responsibility to ensure that these students -- that all students -- really get the support they need. Colleges and universities shirk this responsibility simply by refusing to provide (or figure out a way to provide) equal support to all faculty members.

So, Dean Dad, as an Adjunct Mom I would respectfully remind you that kids -- and students, and parents of students, and taxpaying citizens -- pay more attention to what we do than what we say. We can say the students are "worth it" but the real test is in what we do. And what we -- all of us in higher ed -- are doing by allowing the continuing adjunctification of teaching is telling students that, in the end, they are really NOT "worth it."

From me: we ignore the intersections of such issues at our own peril.
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