Seeing as how it’s the beginning of a new semester, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past week hearing professors talk about their classroom policies and, specifically, the obligation of all students with disabilities to 1) register with campus DS (disability services), and 2) talk with the teacher at the end of class about the accommodations they require. Simply including this (identical) paragraph on their syllabus with perhaps a brief acknowledgment of it is satisfactory to these professors, when in my opinion it is not nearly enough. It certainly does not mean that any of these individuals have any understanding of disability, or of the needs of the disabled.
They are always quite adamant about students with disabilities needing to request accommodations immediately at the start of the semester, as in, during the first week. They say things like, “Don’t come to me the week before the exam asking me for (accommodation).” As if all people with disabilities know in advance what they might need. As if requesting accommodations down the line somehow indicates that the student 1) isn’t really disabled, or 2) isn’t a serious student and didn’t plan ahead, or whatever. This is the sort of thing that has discouraged me from registering with DS. I don’t really know what kinds of accommodations I might need until I need them.
My professors always address the class as if nobody in the class could possibly have a disability. This might be because invisible disabilities are ignored and not taken seriously. It might rest on the assumption that, if a student doesn’t approach the teacher asking for accommodations, they must be disability-free, but that is a pretty foolish assumption to make, since not all students with disabilities require accommodations and for many students it’s (ironically) inaccessible to them. I have struggled greatly in the past with college classes before my MIs were fully documented or diagnosed. Other students I have spoken to have had similar experiences. They might not want to stigmatize themselves, they might have some internalized ableism about what it means to seek accommodations, they might not have the privilege to access what is required to formally recognize a disability… etc.
So when the professors view the class, as a whole, as being not disabled, this translates to extremely strict policies and statements like, “There are no make-up exams, even if you are sick,” and “If you miss more than two classes I will drop you from the course,” and “Do not send me e-mails asking for what you missed,” and “No laptops or recording devices in class,” and “You need to participate, by speaking in class, to get a good grade.” I understand why professors have to make these rules, but making blanket no, do not, ever statements like this are really exclusionary.
Another one: It’s extremely common for professors to rant, at length, about students being even a minute late, or even dock their grades if it’s a regular occurrence. And yet I go to a school that has buildings that are really far apart, and classes are separated by 10 minutes maximum (and that’s *if* the teacher actually lets us out on time, which they often do not). It’s hard for me sometimes to get to classes on time and I can’t imagine how bad it would be for someone with a disability that made it hard for them to move quickly.
In one of my classes, the professor talked about how she once had a student say, “I have a learning disability so I need more time to write this exam, but I can’t afford the required testing for the LD so it’s not documented,” and so the professor refused. Because “it’s not fair to the other students.” This emphasis on fairness assumes that all students are already on an equal playing field, which they are not. It implies that accommodations are somehow giving an advantage to a student. This is how society at large treats accommodations, even if people don’t generally voice it. And the assumption is always that the student is not disabled by default. The implication is that a student must be lying to seek accommodations for something that isn’t documented. They are not given the benefit of the doubt. And that just reinforces all sorts of ableist thinking regarding the legitimacy of invisible disabilities and the right to privacy for people with invisible disabilities. We have to go to great lengths to prove ourselves.
Professors often single out certain behaviors as being personally irritating to them and make statements bordering on ableist when attempting to set some kind of behavioral rule for the class. I’ve had professors say that they get personally offended when students yawn, or fidget, or when they don’t make eye contact. Or: saying that we students are all adults and therefore we do not need guidance.
A really common one is professors demanding that students not leave the room at all during class, and these classes are 2-3 hours long without a break. When professors emphasize how disruptive and rude and distracting it is for students to leave class for any reason, when they demand that students “make themselves comfortable before class starts” it’s shaming for students who cannot go several hours without visiting the bathroom. (“Make yourselves comfortable” is a euphemism for “go to the bathroom”, obviously.) Should I have to approach the professor and explain that I have a small bladder, or that I take meds that make me really thirsty which, in turn, means I have to pee frequently? I hope you can see that this is far more embarrassing than leaving during class. A student should not be put in this position. They should not be sitting in class experiencing anxiety because they have to pee. They should not be worrying about the professor viewing them as an irritation if they get up.
Which leads to the fact that professors in general are incredibly hostile towards manifestations of anxiety and people with anxiety disorders. It’s widely viewed as something we must “get over” and it’s amazing to me how many professors believe that forced exposure to a fear will result in overcoming it. Yeah, that does work for some people and in some situations, but if I had a dime for every time I heard a teacher say that everyone needs to force themselves to feel comfortable speaking in front of the class I’d be rich. Requiring students to speak in front of the class or to read during class is a problem (unless it’s something like a public speaking class). I’ve also had teachers who shame those who choose to sit in the same seat every class, and who force students to sit in different places every day… or who shame students who sit in the back of the class, or near the door, because that apparently means the student isn’t serious about their work. Which, sure, that happens, but it’s like it doesn’t ever cross their minds that there may be other reasons for students to do these things. It’s not like anxiety is uncommon, especially among college students. And by engaging in all of these behaviors I have just described, these professors create an environment that is unfriendly and unreceptive to students with disabilities, especially of the invisible variety; it encourages us to keep quiet and not be a bother, unless absolutely necessary. Because asking for anything, asking to be acknowledged, is an annoyance.
Thinking about the universalizing and ableist character of some very common classroom policies.
all of this.
I <3 this post. I definitely agree with the part about the ridiculousness of trying to seek accommodations before hand. With my ADHD I often don’t know that I’m going to be late on an assignment or that I’m going to miss a class until I do, and the nature of the disabling aspects of my ADHD make it so that there’s just no way I’m going to pretend when and how I’m going to need accommodations. I think I’ve also internalized some of those beliefs about accommodations, that if I got accommodations it would just be me trying to use my ADHD to make excuses for screwing up. Because when I miss a class or turn in an assignment late, there is never a “good reason” for it, and so I end up never having any explanation to give to my professors about why I missed class or why I turned an assignment in late.
I think some of this stuff is at least a little bit better at the college I go to, Reed, because of the honor principle and the way its incorporated into the relationship between students and professors. Although I’m sure it’s not like this in every case, in general professors are more trusting of the students, which manifests in a lot of ways. I’ve also never had a class where you had to ask to go to the bathroom, I think I asked a professor once and they gave me a look and told me I didn’t need to ask.
I think what I’m going to do when I get back to Reed is just tell the professor at the start of the class, “Yo I have ADHD, I often have problems getting to class and turning assignments on time, I don’t know what you can do with my information but you might as well know.” I think at least then I might feel better about arriving to class late rather than just not going (something I do a lot). In general I think it will reduce some of my anxiety, because when I had to go on medical leave my main problem was that I started getting very anxious about the classes I had missed and felt like I couldn’t come to class, creating this vicious cycle that led to me missing a solid month of class.
I had a huge problem with this going to Columbia College. Since it was an art school, a portion of our grade went to participating in critique. I have a generalized anxiety disorder, and social situations are the worst. I mean, not only was it talking in front of 13+ people, but also while explaining your work and opinions of classmates work. Is there anything more horrifying? I have cried during critiques, and not over anything anyone said about my work.
I feel like there’s something of more substance to say, but I think it may have all been said.