How it helps

My second semester teaching, a student’s mother emailed me to tell me that her daughter had been diagnosed with acute appendicitis and was recovering from surgery.  The student, when she returned (which was rather promptly) was very responsible about getting in touch on making up work she missed, but was clearly overwhelmed.  I talked with her about it and it seemed that some of her professors were being a bit turdish about her missed classes and assignments.  We came up with a plan to get her work for me under control with a timeline based on what she and I both considered reasonable.  I ended up substituting some in class work with different assignments that she could do independently from home/dorm.  I now know that what I was doing is called a “modification” under disability accommodation processes.

Several years later, another student was identified to me as a “student with a disability” by our office of disability services.  The nature of the disability was not disclosed (as is proper) but the accommodation of “extra time on quizzes, tests, or exams which can be taken with you in class or at our office” was listed.  The student opted to take them in class, and I restructured the lesson plan on test/quiz days to do the assessments at the end of class to avoid the awkwardness of everyone sitting there done while one student kept working on the test.  Despite what I thought was a good effort with my class in promoting an open and respectful atmosphere, this student started acting out in class during lecture.  He postured and made snide remarks during my lecture.  When he started in on another student (who was, yes, that person who always has her hand up with a helpful or insightful comment), I told him to meet with me after class.  I asked him what was going on, why he was being so mean and crabby.  “I can’t see the damned slides” he said at one point, and the note taker had been flaking on him, not providing notes in a timely manner.  I had switched recently from lecture only to lecture plus powerpoint and it seems that the nature of my student’s disability was visual.  “I can see things if they are near and big with a lot of contrast” he told me.  I was thunderstruck.  Why hadn’t the disability office given me better guidance?  What the hell was the deal with “extra time”?  This kid could do tests, quizzes, and exams in a normal amount of time with half the frustration if I just pumped up the font size!  And I could do handouts, one slide per page, for when I was presenting by powerpoint.  I asked him if either or both of these accommodations would help and he said yes.  To avoid the class seeing him getting the powerpoint packet and wondering about “special treatment”, I made handouts for everyone.  This is called “universal design”.

I am not certain I would have been as willing or sympathetic to these students needs if I hadn’t been struggling with an invisible disabling illness myself.  And I now tell people, when I’m feeling open enough to discuss this sort of thing with them, that of all the shitty things that come of being sick, this is one of the few ways that it has helped.  I had a personal reference for empathy with these people, which I think helped me in making what aspects of their educational opportunities I controlled be more accessible.

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