Proposed Principles to Guide Accomodation of Student Disabilities

September 2001

As the new fall term begins, many of us will be receiving forms from university councillors requesting that we grant special consideration to students with "disabilities." This has continued to be a controversial issue on many university campuses. SAFS's member Richard Harshman proposes some principles to consider when we make these decisions. He hopes that these might serve as a starting point for the development of a set of guidelines, ones that SAFS can offer to university faculty and administration, hopefully for adoption in university policy and in printed explanatory materials distributed by the university to students and faculty. We invite you to comment on his proposals and/or to offer your own ideas on the issue.


1) Principles

  1. The central goals of academic accommodation are:
    1. Equal learning opportunities for disabled students.
    2. Accurate academic assessment of disabled students.
  2. The central principles guiding selection of appropriate academic accommodation are:
    1. That it will not compromise the University's primary missions of quality teaching, valid assessment of students, free intellectual exchange, and discovery of new knowledge;
    2. That it will be fair to all students; it will not give competitive advantages to either disabled or non-disabled students;
    3. That it will use a method suitable for the specific disability and the specific academic characteristics of the course.
  3. Consequently:
    1. It is appropriate to accommodate limitations in any abilities that are incidental to course performance goals and that seriously interfere with equality of learning opportunity and/or chance for accurate assessment of the disabled student.
    2. It is inappropriate to accommodate limitations in those abilities that are integral to evaluated course performance goals and/or that legitimately play a significant role in determining differences in evaluated performance of non-disabled students.
    3. The decision of whether it is appropriate to accommodate a particular student's disability, and, if so, how best to do so consistent with the academic objectives of a course, can only be determined by fully informed consultation between the student and the course instructor.

2) Issues that arise when applying these principles

The learning stage vs. the assessment stage of accommodation

  1. Accommodation to remove obstacles to learning by disabled students is at least as important as (and perhaps more important than) accommodation to ensure valid academic assessment. ('Learning-stage' accommodation of disabilities is also relatively uncontroversial, because facilitation of learning is part of the university's overall teaching mission and because it does not usually raise issues of fairness to other students, or questions about maintenance of academic standards. But it can be difficult to carry out. Perhaps for this reason, it is often neglected and "replaced" with adjustments of testing conditions, etc. This is to be avoided.)
  2. Accommodation to remove obstacles to valid academic assessment of disabled students (by changing conditions of testing, or essay requirements, etc.) should be of a kind that would increase validity of the assessment. It is important to try to remove obstacles that would otherwise lower the student's mark below that reflecting her/his true knowledge and ability. It is quite inappropriate to reduce validity of the test score by establishing conditions that inflate marks of accommodated students above what their actual abilities and achievements in the course would warrant.

    The purpose of "assessment-stage" accommodation is not to raise a student's mark from the true level of accomplishment and ability attained in the course up to some hypothetical level that might have been obtained without a disability. Such a counterfeit improvement is neither an adequate nor a fair replacement for aid that should have been given (when possible) to produce a real improvement at the learning stage.

Relationship between the disability and the course

  1. The source of a disability (whether inherited or acquired through trauma, whether due to medical problems or of natural origin) is less relevant to issues of accommodation than (a) how seriously the disability impacts the student's learning and performance in the course, and (b) the relationship between the nature of the disability and the nature of the course. In this regard, it is important to distinguish course-integral and course-incidental abilities.
    1. Course-integral abilities are either evaluated abilities or components of evaluated abilities. Examples might include spatial or mathematical ability as part of problem solving ability for students in a physics course, or verbal fluency for students in a law or creative writing course. These abilities are part of "what a course is about," part of what is evaluated when student performance is assessed, and are part of what is implicitly 'certified' when a student gets a high mark in a course.

      Individual differences in the level of course-integral abilities contribute naturally to differences in evaluated achievement of non-disabled as well as disabled students. It would therefore be unfair to provide accommodation for very low levels of such abilities and not also provide accommodation to students who are in the lower part of the normal range of individual differences in these same abilities. Both groups are at a natural disadvantage when competing with students at the higher end of the range.

      Accommodation of differences in course-integral abilities also undermines academic standards. It attenuates the degree to which differences in marks reflect differences in level of achievement in a course. For example, recently a UWO student was granted extra time on a statistics exam in part to accommodate for a spatial and numerical disability. Such accommodation might make it possible for this or some other student to pass a statistics course and yet be unable to understand and properly use any statistical information presented in subsequent courses. Such 'accommodation' is actually a disservice to the student. It is also a disservice to the University and to the community of people who depend on valid assessment of students by universities (such as admissions committees for graduate school, potential employers, future medical patients of clinically trained students, etc.).

    2. Course-incidental abilities are unrelated to the abilities and accomplishments that are the evaluated achievement goals in a course. Course-incidental abilities might include verbal fluency in a physics course or spatial and mathematical ability in a law or creative writing course. Incidental disabilities that interfere with learning or assessment (e.g., coordination difficulties) should be accommodated whenever feasible. (However, some course-incidental disabilities may be impossible to accommodate, e.g., blindness for a student in certain visual arts courses, or deafness for a student in certain music appreciation courses.) The broad principle underlying these distinctions is that the disability accommodated and the method of accommodation should not compromise the main missions of the university. Consider, as an analogy, a request for accommodation of serious vision disability by an applicant for a job as bus driver. The potential employer should not, and would not, be required to modify assessment methods to accommodate such applicants, because to do so would compromise one of the essential missions of that organization: safe transport of customers.

The instructor's role, and the need for fully informed consultation between instructor and student.

  1. Because of the potentially complex and subtle considerations involved in determining appropriateness of accommodation in a specific class, and in designing the best method of accommodation, it is essential that the instructor be fully informed of the nature of any student disability offered as grounds for a request for accommodation. This may require entrusting the instructor with confidential information concerning the student's disability, in which case, he or she will be held responsible for protecting that confidentiality.
  2. In the accommodation process, it is the role of the instructor to (a) contribute expertise on the nature of the course objectives, exam properties, etc. and thus on which abilities are course-integral vs. course-incidental, (b) speak for and defend any academic values that may need to be considered, (c) if needed, raise any issues of fairness to other students that may need to be considered, and (d) act as a key participant in any balancing of values that may be necessary. For this reason, the instructor should have primary authority in the decision of determining appropriate academic accommodation.

3) Some examples of difficult cases

Difficult borderline cases such as 'learning disabilities' challenge us to make fair and reasonable decisions about what is course-integral and what is course-incidental in what is often a gray area. Furthermore, there are many different kinds of 'learning disability' to be distinguished.

Consider dyslexia, a specific difficulty in reading resulting from subtle perceptual/processing problems. Although reading plays an important role in transmission of information in almost all university courses, the actual course content and learning or performance objectives are seldom, at the university level, about a student's ability to read; reading is not "an essential and integral part of evaluated student excellence and accomplishment in the course." Consequently, learning-stage accommodation of this type of disability would be quite appropriate. In addition, some assessment-stage accommodation could be needed in order to be sure that an exam accurately measured the student's knowledge and course-integral abilities.

On the other hand, limitations in the ability to pay attention and concentrate, and/or to remember certain kinds of material, might not be incidental to evaluated achievement in a course. Significant differences in these abilities are arguably part of the natural individual differences that non-disabled students also have to acknowledge and live with. Great care must be exercised when deciding whether or not, and if so how, to accommodate such learning disabilities.

There are also difficult questions concerning effectiveness and appropriateness of specific methods of accommodation. A key one concerns the currently standard practice of allowing more time on exams. When is extra exam time an appropriate accommodation, and when is it inappropriate because either it is not effective, or is not adequately related to the nature of the disability? When would a certain increment in time be too much, and thus provide such a strong "accommodation" that it is unfair to other students?

Some initial thoughts might be as follows. Such accommodation would seem uncontroversial when the test is relatively 'unspeeded,' so that added time would not substantially enhance the scores of non-disabled students. However, on a highly 'speeded' exam, where added time would make a substantial difference in the scores of non-disabled as well as disabled students, the granting of 50% more time might seriously overcompensate for a particular disability and give the disabled student an unfair advantage. Often, it is only the instructor who is able to adequately judge whether an exam is highly speeded or not based on knowledge of the nature of the exam and the ability level of students in the course.

Added exam time would seem appropriate when the resulting improvement in the disabled student's score is due to removal of incidental obstacles that slow the student down (e.g., poor motor coordination and hence difficulty writing). However, problems of fairness and academic standards may arise when the request for extra time is because of a student's difficulty in concentration or inability to effectively "focus" his or her attention (perhaps as a result of brain injury). The ability to concentrate and marshal one's thoughts so as to solve problems effectively or state arguments clearly is often an integral part of evaluated student performance at any university.

(A final note: some recent court decisions may invoke principles similar to those raised above, in particular the distinction between what are here called integral vs. incidental (dis)abilities).