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.