and accommodation in the classroom
"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
Exchange As a professor and a
department chair, what issues concern you regarding learning
Neill I've seen two difficulties.
First is the question, what is a learning disability? What is
the evidence for these things? We faculty are being asked to
do various kinds of accommodations, but we know nothing about
the student, and we have little understanding for the basis of
this. The student appears to us labeled from the Office of Disability
Services as being officially learning-disabled. As research-oriented
psychologists, we're very curious about the evidence for these
accommodations. Do they make any difference? What's the basis
for thinking they make any difference other than lowering the
anxiety level of the student? And we're not so sure about the
basis for some of the diagnoses. Disorders like dyslexia, there's
a lot of work on, so we know that's real. But a learning disability
for a multiple choice exam would be a stretch for us.
Here's another concern: you have parents who, like any parent,
want their child to do better than they did. So when the student
doesn't do so well in school and this is picked up early on,
they go to the psychologist and get the diagnosis. 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. Have the exam
put on a computer, have extra time, have someone paid to take
notes in the class-I've done plenty of them. But 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
And I'm concerned that the diagnoses may sometimes be masking
other problems. I've seen some students who have been told by
Dad, "You will go to Emory, and you will become a doctor."
If these students don't want to do this, they can't tell Mom
and Dad, so they get depressed. I've seen all this roll out in
front of me with my freshman advisees.
The other problem is Emory's implementation of this. The university
had to respond to this because of the federal mandate. I don't
know of places other than Emory, but here we've moved rather
slowly. The faculty knew nothing about it. We found out when
students would show up at our class bearing these blue folders
with this document that said, this student is certified as learning
disabled and qualified for the following accommodations. And
it was left up to the faculty to adjust.
But somebody's got to talk to the faculty, because we have lots
AE What do you think is the fine line between natural
human differences and differences that we must accommodate?
DN The line is adequate testing, and this is where
we in this research-oriented department get skittish about who
is doing the testing and who is coming up with these diagnoses.
It's a competitive society. That's why people pay $25,000 a year
for tuition to come here. They think they're buying a leg up.
And if they care that much about their kid, then they are also
highly likely to have identified any difficulties that the kid
had earlier in school and to have paid money to try to do something
Do you think we run the risk of over-accommodation?
DN Let's say a student gets out of here and makes
it to law school, and the law school makes accommodations. But
when General Motors hires him for their law department, are they
going to make accommodations, too? I don't know. The ADA applies
to everybody; I would assume that includes corporations. But
if I've got a corporation, why do I want to hire somebody and
say, Sure, we'll give you an extra day to produce that memo.
Or, this memo doesn't make much sense to me, but that's okay.
AE Have you ever thought a requested accommodation
eroded or undermined your teaching standards?
DN Faculty have two somewhat conflicting roles.
One, we're teachers. And we really get a charge out of seeing
people like what we're covering. I've literally been stopped
on the street by students who told me that that day's lecture
was terrific. And that's why we keep doing this business. But
that is countered by the other role, as the gatekeepers. At a
place like Emory where a lot of students want to go on to graduate
and professional school, we're the people who give the As and
Bs. The people who pay all that money for students to come here
expect us to be honest in doing that. And all these accommodations
are scary for faculty. It's almost like someone, maybe the parent,
has found an end-run around the system by going out and finding
people who will give diagnoses to their child so the student
gets special care all the way through.As we have more people
trained to go looking, as we have more sensitivity to individual
differences, we're going to find out more and more about these
individual differences. And I think as a professor, I just want
to know, am I being treated fairly? And are other students being