Students should be trusted when asking for accommodations

BY GWYNETH SPINCKEN ’21

Today, the average college or university offers some version of disability services, and most encourage students in need to access this aid. These accommodations allow for more equitable treatment for students with disabilities. The support is vital, and without it, professors would overlook many students with the potential to make meaningful contributions to their college or university by not properly supporting them. Additionally, students would be punished unfairly for their disabilities and suffer from lower grades for something they have little to no control over.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 61 million people in the U.S. live with a disability, so it only makes sense that colleges should help those facing both mental and physical obstacles in order for these students to receive the quality of education they deserve.

Psychological disabilities are often treated differently than physical ones. The symptoms of cognitive impairmentaren’t always visible, and as a result those who choose to disclose them may be met with judgment and skepticism. In a study conducted by the World Psychiatry Journal, researchers found that “persons with mental illness are perceived by the public to be in control of their disabilities and responsible for causing them” and people often “[re- act] to psychiatric disability with anger and [believe] that help is not deserved.”

When such a substantial ratio of the population has inaccurate, unsympathetic beliefs about mental health issues, it only makes sense if some students are apprehensive about approaching a professor for accommodations. Nothing can guarantee that the professor won’t perpetuate this stigma.

Professors may fear that students, particularly those with “invisible” disabilities like mental illness, will take advantage of their accommodations. Some cautiously mention the blurred line between equitable access and giving students an unfair advantage. While psychology professor Gail Hornstein supports disability accommodations, she argues that professors should identify and challenge “overly broad and vague criteria for what constitutes a student’s problem [and] what’s a crisis (and what’s not).” I, however, believe that students with disabilities should be counseled with respect, and that professors should disregard their fear of students taking advantage of accommodations to instead help those who need them.

Hornstein’s arguments are not necessarily unreasonable or uncompassionate. However, they illustrate a somewhat problematic attitude regard- ing the relationship between disability services, the student and the professor. In Hornstein’s ideal dynamic, the pro- fessor takes on most of the power in this three-cornered relationship. They become the authority on identifying a “crisis” and ultimately are granted too much power over both disability services — which will usually have a more comprehensive profile of the student’s struggles — and the student, who can now be told by a near stranger that their symptoms should not be affecting their work. The professor may have authority in the classroom, but students need to have a voice in their education, which is exactly what disability services is designed to provide.

Hornstein clarifies that she is generous to students who fall behind due to extraneous circumstances. She ad- mirably wants to open a dialogue with her students and work with them to nd a solution that suits both student and professor. However, many professors who broadly agree with her do not follow her lead.

Students are often reluctant to share their struggles with faculty who may respond with a lack of compas- sion. Zoe Heard ’21 has experienced this problem rsthand. “When I had a panic attack one time and had trouble finishing all my work for that night, most of my professors were understanding, but one of them told me that I should have ‘planned ahead,’” said Heard. “Professors shouldn’t only be understanding about mental illness and disabilities because AccessAbility [Services] tells them to be [...] Even though I have accommodations now, I still have these issues.”

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, but a conversation between disability services, the student and the professor can foster avenues to fairness in education. Accessibility concerns should be taken seriously, regardless of the disability in question.