"I worry that
there's an entire industry out there
of gurus who are basically getting paid nicely to create these
diagnoses, which may be built on sand."
Neill, Professor and Chair of Psychology
"We need to find the
common ground between
teaching style and the characteristics of the learner."
of Faculty Resources for Disabilities
Academic Exchange October/November
2000 Contents Page
years ago in an undergraduate psychology class at Emory, a student
gave her professor a letter from the university's Office of Disability
Services (ODS) stating that the student was registered with ODS
and eligible to request certain academic accommodations. According
to the letter, the student needed both extra time on multiple-choice
exams and to take the exams on a computer. When the professor
inquired about the nature of the disability, the student replied
that it was "a learning disability for multiple choice exams."
Skeptical, the professor consulted another faculty member who
had taught the student in a previous class and learned that the
student had taken multiple-choice exams and had not asked for
accommodation. When the professor confronted the student with
her doubts after class one day, the student, sobbing, fled the
room and eventually withdrew from the course.
Such situations don't occur often, but they do offer a snapshot
of the ambiguities and dilemmas that arise in creating equitable
conditions for students with learning disabilities. Faculty,
on one hand, often struggle with the sense that they are being
manipulated, that a diagnosis may be medically untenable, or
that their teaching standards are being undermined by unreasonable
expectations for accommodations. Students, on the other hand,
become frustrated by faculty mistrust, exacerbating anxiety about
their difficulties processing the information and ideas in a
According to Gloria McCord, director of ODS since 1999, a faculty
member is legally not privy to information about a student's
diagnosis. "Those are particulars about that person's medical
profile," she says. "It's strictly confidential. The
law would eat us up alive."
But, she adds, "Certified, licensed professionals provide
us with the diagnosis. We are not the diagnosticians. We're the
facilitators of the law, which says that every student with a
learning disability should have a leveled academic playing ground.
A faculty member can, however, challenge an accommodation if
they think it's unreasonable. We'll go to the negotiating table
and work something out."
Those negotiations are of particular interest to Wendy Newby,
recently hired by Emory College and the University Advisory Council
on Teaching to provide faculty resources for teaching students
with disabilities university-wide. A Ph.D. in psychology, Newby
has worked with students with learning disabilities for more
than seventeen years and will be available to faculty to help
interpret and resolve issues around disability acccommodation
and teaching methods.
"A learning disability is a processing disorder," says
Newby. "It could be based on a difficulty relaying messages
from your head to your hand, for example, resulting in problems
keeping up when taking notes in class. The student with a learning
disability of this type may understand the ideas perfectly well
but not be able to listen and write at the same time. This would
be a disability in a class that requires a lot of notes but not
in a class that is primarily discussion. For a student with a
language-related learning disability, negotiating the complex
language of a multiple choice test within a limited time period
may be very difficult. The result of the test may reflect test-taking
skills, not knowledge of the subject."
Professors everywhere are encountering growing numbers of students
identifying themselves as having learning disabilities. Some
four hundred and fifty students are registered with Emory's Office
of Disability Services, and the majority have documented learning
disabilities. According to a recent study by the American Council
on Education, the number of college freshmen nationally identifying
themselves as learning disabled, the fastest-growing category
of disability, almost tripled from 1988 to 1998. Another study
conducted by the Graduate School of Education at ucla reports
that of the 154,000 freshmen who report a disability, four out
of ten report a learning disability.
For faculty, the tensions
arise between a genuine desire to accommodate learning differences
and level the playing field, and a healthy dose of skepticism
about the diagnostic bases for the disabilities, many of which
are relatively new categories. "Most of us are imperfect,"
says Deborah Ayer, a senior lecturer in English who is associate
director of the Center for Teaching and Curriculum and director
of the Writing Center in Emory College. "What distinguishes
a disability from run-of-the-mill imperfections? These are the
gray areas that create a kind of suspicion on the part of the
faculty who are simply handed a letter. It's this disembodied
voice ordering you to do something that sometimes doesn't make
much sense. I think there's a real lack of understanding of what
constitutes a learning disability and how it is validated."
Psychology professor and chair Darryl Neill adds, "Someone's
paying a lot of money for these students to go here, and they
have high expectations. If a student has some kind of cognitive
problems, then they of course expect Emory to make accommodations.
And most of the accommodations are no problem. I've done plenty
of them. But as research-oriented psychologists, we're very curious
about the basis for this. I worry that there's an entire industry
out there of gurus who are basically getting paid nicely to create
these diagnoses, which may be built on sand."
Some faculty members worry that the accommodations aren't always
consonant with their curricular requirements and teaching standards.
A professor may be asked to offer a test in an alternative format
(multiple choice versus essay or vice versa), in an extended
time period, or with the assistance of a scribe, who may type
the student's oral response or fill in the answers on the test.
A student may also require a distraction-free or private testing
room; the use of a computer, dictionary, or calculator; no penalty
for minor spelling or grammar errors; or enlarged print or audio
versions of exams on tape. Students with difficulty processing
the written word may receive course texts on tape. Faculty may
also be asked to help students find a note-taker to compensate
for difficulty assimilating, remembering, or organizing material
while listening to a lecture.
Further, Ayer says that after spending many extra hours working
with some students who have identified themselves as having learning
disabilities, "I wonder--is it always in the best interest
of students to nurse them through an assignment, or would it
be better to let them struggle a little?" she says. "If
you bend things too much, you harm them in the long run. They
don't develop the independence that allows them to find solutions-to
learn on their own."
Such questions are now becoming problematic even in the admissions
process. Dean of Admission Dan Walls says that while a learning
disability is a "neutral point" in the Emory College
admission process, "it's a loaded issue. Sometimes students
write about a disability in their application essay, sometimes
high school counselors let us know, and sometimes an untimed
sat score indicates a learning disability, but we try to ignore
all that. We wonder occasionally, though, whether if you pay
enough money, you can buy a disability."
In its extreme, skepticism can lead to backlash. Some even dismiss
the very existence of learning disabilities at all, such as the
Washington University physics professor who wrote last year to
the Chronicle of Higher Education that "special privileges
for the learning disabled are a scam, a breach of academic integrity,
and a fraud perpetrated upon students who do not receive these
privileges and upon those (employers and professional schools)
who depend on the honesty of our grades and degrees. . . . Universities
are about learning. If someone isn't very good at learning (in
other words, is learning disabled), he should not attend university."
ideas of teaching
Most professors, however, simply want to create the best learning
environment for all their students. "The Americans with
Disabilities Act and what it requires was an eye-opener for me,
a first step in thinking about those issues and trying to expand
my ideas of teaching and evaluation," says Morgan Cloud,
Candler Professor of Law.
"I began to see the need for faculty members to be more
flexible. The 'empty vessel' theory of education-that professors
can just put out information, and students, if they are competent,
will get it whatever way the professors put it out-just turns
out not to be accurate."
Cloud has especially reconsidered the traditional method of timed
testing in legal education. Instead, he gives take-home exams.
"The timed, in-class exam places an inordinately high priority
on being able to write really fast, and that is obviously not
a very good way to evaluate people with physical and learning
disabilities. The ability to sit down and write really fast for
three or four hours has nothing to do with being a lawyer. What
lawyers and most professionals need to do is be able to think
carefully, to reason, to solve problems, to work with other people."
Teachers want students to love what they love, says Newby. "That's
why teaching is satisfying. But if I have a student who for some
reason has difficulty not with the content of a class but with
the process of gaining that information and giving it back to
me, then I want to help that student be successful." A.O.A.