Saturday, December 12, 2009

Education, Disabled Students, Fairness

A recent post and comments over at the Volokh Conspiracy, along with my efforts to deal fairly with my students who struggle with various disorders have got me thinking, again, about the whole problem of learning and behaviorally/psychiatrically disabled students.


A. The discussion at Volokh centers on a case , Metcalf-Leggette v. Princeton University 3:09-cv-05428, brought by a Princeton U. first year student to whom the university refused extended time on her midterm exams. Ms. Metcalf-Leggette has been diagnosed with:

• Mixed-Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder, which limits her ability to comprehend language, express language or recall material.
• Disorder of Written Expression, which leaves her ability to communicate in writing below the level expected based on age, intelligence or life experiences. When she writes, she has to repeatedly re-check what she has composed.
• Developmental Coordination Disorder, which leaves her ability to spell, punctuate and form sentences below the level expected based on age, intelligence or life experiences. She needs to read material several times over, isolate key words and highlight them so she can locate them again. Also under this disorder, her visual-motor processing skills are in the sixth percentile, "far below the average person, let alone the typical Princeton University student." She also suffers eye strain when taking tests and needs periodic breaks because of the way she reads passages over and over.
• Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which limits her ability to focus. When reading, any distraction requires her to go back to the beginning of the passage. [quoted from]

Princeton offered a ‘distraction free’ testing situation and 10 minute breaks for every hour of the exams as well as a guarantee of only one exam per day, but the student was not satisfied, noting that a poor performance on the exams will do her ‘irreparable harm.’
The court refused a preliminary injunction for the midterms, but Metcalf-Leggette could receive an injunction prior to final exams if her attorneys can persuade the court that she has a plausible claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That determination is due on January 11; Princeton finals begin a week later.

B. My own hypothetical ‘case’ involves a student –let’s call her/him ‘Q. ’[i] I present Q’s case as an example of the kinds of problems that confront many professors. Let’s imagine that Q has been diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive and hyperactive and may also suffer from some degree of attention-deficit disorder. Suppose our office of disability support services approved extended time on exams for Q - who nonetheless assured me that s/he was unlikely to need it.

It is likely that Q is a very intelligent young person. Q’s thinking and writing abilities are above average, although Q has trouble focusing on what is central to the problem or topic under consideration. As a bright and well-read person, and with OCD, Q always wants to disclose everything s/he knows on the topic. Q is also highly argumentative, has difficulty not speaking out in class and dominating the class, and seems either unaware of her/his peers or indifferent to them. (I recognize that I am probably combining a number of distinct disabilities, here.)

I like Q and have [mostly]enjoyed having Q in class. The problem is that Q cannot turn in work on time and according to requirements. Almost every assignment is encumbered in one way or another by special requests, demands, or difficulties. I give extensions, make allowances, pursue late work, and … so on.

Ultimately, a piece of work is over 3 working weeks late. Q had promised me to get it in (late) by a certain date and did not do so. I have reason to believe that Q was deceitful with me – perhaps not for the first time. Of course, I recognize that the recourse to deception is largely due to the desire to be perfect – at least in someone’s eyes.[ii] That the final paper for the course is due within several days only aggravates the problem for me. How late will that paper be? And, given Q’s habit of skipping class when not wanting to face up to matters at hand, how can I be sure Q will show up for the final exam?

In the meantime, I have students who have been ill with serial infections, whose parents are getting divorced, who are starring in the major theatrical productions of the semester and have been required to attend every rehearsal, or who are applying for major awards and going through our excellent, but exhausting, vetting process.

The Questions

1) Given that our own disabilities support staff say professors ought to consider ‘fairness’ at some point, but offer no principles as to how or when we should consider fairness to other students – or what it means - how should I decide when the fairness line has been breached?

a) How am I to determine principles of my own that I can rely on as capturing fairness between non-disabled and disabled students?
b) As far as that goes, how can I arrive at principles that achieve fairness in dealing with students whose disabilities are of diverse types?

2) To what extent should it matter to my decisions that our students are, for the most part, children of relatively privileged and highly-engaged parents? (Not, perhaps, comparable to the parents of Ms. Metcalf-Leggette, whose LD brother also attended Princeton, but privileged in comparison with most other families in this country.)

a) In other words, should I be concerned about the inequity in the situation of the majority of my students’ situations relative to that of the majority of college-age Americans? In dealing with Q, should it matter to me that less wealthy and/or less engaged parents would not have sought the diagnoses and accommodations for their children that Q’s parents sought for her/him?

b) What if some of my own students are of less-privileged status than Q? Am I to sort and weight all these differences out and take them into account? What if I know that Z was told s/he probably suffers from some disorder, but her/his family decided Z should not seek an official diagnosis or accommodations? This means I am not required to treat Z with any special consideration, but why should I not do so if I have reason to believe Z is just as in need of accommodations as Q?

As far as I can determine, the usual answer to Question 1 and its corollaries, is something like, “Just do the best you can.” In other words: there is no principled position possible. A principled approach is impossible because, despite all the science involved in diagnosing these various disorders, we don’t have the information we would need to arrive at principles.

Of course ,we do have some rough guidelines. If Susie is diagnosed with a specific disorder that manifests in certain ways in her case, the support folks determine that giving her ‘time and a half’ on in-class exams is appropriate. Or, perhaps they recommend she take her tests in a distraction-free setting (as was offered to Ms. Metcalf-Leggette). I do not know how those in charge select these accommodations, but I can easily make them.

But what about Q and Ms. M-L? Q struggles with real problems. So does Ms. M-L. She wants more accommodations than Princeton’s support folks think she ‘needs.’ With respect to Q, I am encouraged to ‘keep in mind’ her/his difficulties and to ‘try to make reasonable accommodations.’ But, I do not know what the standard of reasonableness is. Even in cases like that of Ms. M-L., where someone knowledgeable has set out what they believe to be reasonable accommodations, those accommodations are rejected by students and families as not reasonable.

I believe a significant barrier to answering Question 1 and its corollaries is that we have not, and are afraid to, answer Question 2 and its corollaries. If we do seriously confront the latter set, we will discover that we have hidden from ourselves the most fundamental question of all: What is our purpose in making allowances for learning and behaviorally/psychiatrically disabled students, and how does that purpose justify altering the rules of the educational game for them and only them?

All that is for the next post.

[i] Not to be confused with any individual student of mine.
[ii] Of course, I come down hard on non-disabled students who attempt to deceive me.

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