The “S” is for Speshul.

The beginning of the semester always means a trickle, or even a parade, of students who have to come tell me about their disabilities. Or rather, they don’t actually tell me about their disabilities. Instead, I get a laundry list of all the accommodations they need for some mysterious disability they don’t have to disclose. Because, as one student once said to me, I am not qualified to assess their learning. Yeah, right.

I am torn on the subject of giving students accommodations. There are some, like the hardworking and bright blind student I had, who have clearly identifiable issues, and it is often the case that the students with the most obvious disabilities are the ones who are working hardest to overcome them. Plus, you know, it is a lot harder to be coy about a missing arm than some kind of alphabet syndrome.

Students with identified learning disabilities fall into a couple of categories, I find: students who know they have ADD or whatever, and have a decent level of self-knowledge and do their best to get their shit together, and those whose disability might best be described as “whiny and entitled”.

Feckless is currently dealing with one in the latter category. This student came to all of 4 classes over the course of semester, and then, during the last week, said that the reason he didn’t come to class was that he had some kind of social anxiety disorder, and could he be accommodated for it? Apparently, this means that he now wants to be excused all the classes he didn’t attend, and get 10 out of 10 for participation in the class he never went to. When Feckless declined to be that accommodating, the student filed a grade appeal that argued, among other things, that he should get good marks for attendance because he got an A for his essay (NOT a logic class, can’t you tell?) and that Feckless was a big fat liar. Is being a jerk really a social disorder you can get academic accommodations for?

I have a student who is shaping up to be a pain. It’s only the second week of semester, and I can tell, because in the last 2 days, she has sent me 8 emails, most of which are asking for basic information already given in class. After reading about the 5th one asking how to send me an email asking me a question about something which is clearly described in the course outline, I must admit to wondering whether she was retarded.

She might be, apparently, but of course the request for me to do all kinds of cr azy stuff like giving her my notes from every class (what notes? I make this shit up as I go along!) doesn’t specify what her actual problem is. See, as the person attempting to teach her, this is none of my beeswax. As a matter of policy. Do I sound a bit tetchy about this? That’s because it is fucking ass-backwards and recockulous.

Because of privacy issues, though, that’s how it works in higher education. The only people who actually know what the student’s particular learning problems are are not her teachers. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think a lot of the people working as advisors or whatever to students with disabilities are doing a great job, but they are hampered by not knowing exactly what is going on in the classroom. And when the student’s disability includes being whiny and entitled (see above), this can mean that there’s a whole lot of room for students to play mommy (the prof) against daddy (the disability advisor). Unless, of course, they talk. Which is my secret weapon.

I put my foot down with today’s snowflake on the issue of recording the class. Well, that and not sharing my invisible notes. Not because I am shy about being recorded (DUH, FYCL), but because I run discussion-based classes, and I honestly believe that there are students who will be discouraged from participating in a discussion if they know (as they must be informed) that it is being recorded. I don’t think it is reasonable for one student’s needs to be met if it disadvantages another.

This, of course, makes me like kryptonite to the Speshul Snowflakes, who don’t understand this at all.

13 thoughts on “The “S” is for Speshul.

  1. Julia

    Fortunately, my university has a disabilities office. At the beginning of quarter, if a student is registered with them, the student brings me a form which describes what accommodations they need- it’s usually things like, more time on quizzes/tests (for which I’m required to send the tests over to the disabilities office, and they proctor the extended exam) or extended homework deadlines; the office has never asked me to do anything unreasonable.

    If someone’s not registered with the disabilities office, they don’t get accommodations. I encourage them to get registered, but if they don’t, that’s that.

    Sometimes students tell me their disabilities, sometimes not. I’m as happy not to know; it’s legally not my business (HIPAA being what it is). I like it that way; that way the business of accommodations is dealt with by people who know about the student and the disability, and there’s no room for students to ask for extra, unreasonable things.

    1. whatladder Post author

      Feckless’ issue was that his student didn’t even indicate there were accommodations to be asked for until semester was nearly over. We have the same process, but if students choose to game the system with late applications, it is hard to know what to do.

  2. ooartemisoo

    There are a lot of people out there who need to just get on with life.
    I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 6 and I have just completed a four year bachelor degree. And I didn’t have any problems. Not ones I was aware of, anyway, being that I have always been the way I am. I wouldn’t even contemplate going to the Disabilities Office at my university to seek special privileges. It would feel like scamming the system.

  3. paperkingdoms

    Our disability office’s forms has a lovely line about students being responsible for telling instructors ahead of time, and in plenty of time to arrange accommodations. And we’re told that we *can’t* provide accommodations without the form in hand. It’s lovely.

  4. Alison

    Um, I’d be careful about assuming that people are gaming the system when they don’t register their disabilities on time. Often, the crash and burn is itself the preliminary test result leading to the diagnosis of psychological and neurological problems (which, obviously, go hand in hand in many situations.) I agree that the question of what to do is a difficult one, but playing the blame game is not going to help to solve real problems. I really am sorry if that’s what the disabled snowflakes are doing to you guys, and I’m sure that the situation is perhaps more serious than they realize, but christ, where does the hostility end?

    I was diagnosed with ADD at the age of 26. It was hell getting the proper documentation and the proper help while also trying to understand and come to terms with this new information and carry out my always already unravelling daily life at the same time. After only a few months of this, I was grinding my teeth to the quick and suffering chest pains that wouldn’t subside for hours on end. I was overcome with shame and confusion about my struggle. I became a shut in for several months, too nervous to leave my room in my shared apartment. It was very difficult to describe what was happening to me or to stick up for myself when it would have been appropriate because I was so confused, myself, as to what was going on, not to mention out of control. I often felt there was nowhere I could turn. There was so much misunderstanding and misinformation and prejudiced bullshit to navigate that I became very much inclined to jumping into the freezing St Lawrence.

    A year later, I am doing better, but my life and my mind are still in somewhat of a broken state. I struggle like hell, and I still manage to miss the mark, because I am still just learning how to go about replacing a lifetime’s worth of maladaptive behaviours and interpersonal heartache. From the start, I’ve wanted nothing more than to make the most of my second swing at post secondary, but as it stands right now, I am facing the situation of potentially getting kicked out of school.

    As far as I can tell, nobody really knows how to help people like me or how to deal with these issues, administratively or otherwise. I have had many many teachers, and none of them, no matter how good they were at teaching, had the wherewithal to understand or diagnose what I was dealing with. Disability Services, as far as I understand, is supposed to be slightly better equipped to bridge that gap in understanding, and to serve as a mediator between the student and the teacher in order to keep the student on track. I have ambivalent feelings about accommodations, myself. It is hard for me to gauge what will help or hinder my development, and I think that most of the professionals I interact with are in the same boat. Shots in the dark, most of it. One doctor prescribed me Ritalin last year, which was a TERRIBLE idea. Just another shot in the dark. As the guinea pig, you mandate is first to make sure that the process of “getting help” doesn’t kill you.

    All of this is just to say, I think this sort of thing often winds up being hard on everyone involved. It is definitely important to stake out your boundaries, so as not to get trodden upon, but when all else fails, in a sea of confusion, I think that being as humane as possible, regardless of whom you’re dealing with, is safest ethical policy.

    1. whatladder Post author

      I appreciate that there are difficulties on both ends. I had one student who was promising in class but crashed and burned on her midterm. I asked her to come and talk about it, and she explained that she was trying to struggle through without asking for accommodations, and she was FINE, outside of test conditions, but she needed that extra time and the quiet room. I supported her through that, and she decided to ask for help on the final, and ended up doing well. There’s an example of someone who is trying to deal, and an instructor who is trying to help.

      On the other side of the coin, I get students who come and ask for a form to be signed, and who dismiss me when I ask what they need: I seriously had one say I “wasn’t qualified” to comment on her learning. And THEN, when she did badly on her first assignment, suddenly it was my fault for asking open ended questions, and similar.

      Yes, there are students who honestly have problems and who are honestly trying to work through them, but there are also snowflakes who are used to using “disability” as an excuse.

  5. Nullifidian

    Like Alison, I’ve seen this from the side of someone with a diagnosed mental disorder. Due to extremely violent physical abuse, verbal abuse, and psychological mind-games my parents played on me, I suffer from clinical depression, panic attacks, and PTSD symptoms.

    I haven’t told anybody at my university about it because of fear of being labeled. Universities are pretty poor at dealing with mental health issues. It’s also not clear to me exactly what sort of accommodation I could ask for. It might be nice to my absence scrubbed from that time I was sobbing uncontrollably in my car for hours and couldn’t even walk from the parking lot to the classroom, but I can’t exactly predict when a depressive breakdown is going to occur.

    Given the difficulty in finding a kind of accommodation that would actually help, I’ve been hesitant to open up about this issue to my university (and I certainly wouldn’t be talking here but for the anonymity of the ‘net) because I’ve heard too many horror stories of depressed students dealing with a bureaucracy that is more interested in preventing negligence lawsuits than in helping students overcome their issues. Friends of mine who suffer from depression have been told flat out to leave university, because they were worried about the possibility of a suicide on campus and being sued for not doing ‘enough’. I already left university once, for about six years of straight private sector employment in a state far away from my abusive parents, so advising me to leave again would not be helpful.

    Not to mention, if one entertains the faint, flickering hope of entering the professoriat one day, they’re even worse on mental health issues because they’re worried about an ‘unstable’ applicant who will sue for discrimination if turned down for a job or promotion.

    Fortunately, I socked away enough money from my days as a full-time employee to pay for my own insurance, but I don’t know what I’d do if I had to rely on the university for my medication and my therapy. Right now, I’m on a serotonin reuptake inhibitor and a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor in one medication, which is doing much more for my nightmares, anhedonia, and depression than the plain SSRIs were, so I’m hoping that it won’t get to the point where I have to seek out the university’s help.

    1. Alison

      Dear Nullifidian,

      I was listening to this podcast about Kay Redfield Jamison’s bipolar addled career and love life, this morning, and thinking of you.

      Here it is:

      What struck me about this, was that it was an account of how she WAS accommodated by her husband and her workplace (Johns Hopkins University) alike.

      Also, I wanted to pass on this compelling speech by Aimee Mullins, who is maybe the most eloquent disability activist I know of. Her ideas are bang on.

      What’s been interesting about the process of developing an awareness of my own condition is that I’ve begun to more acutely see many of the symptoms I experience in others, including my profs. (Which has been heartening in a way: academia seems to be rife with eccentrics and emos, and it makes me think that I might finally have found the best place for my weird self to be.) In fact, in many cases, the more symptoms we share, the more difficult and/or intolerant the relationship tends to be on both sides. The ugly truth is that most people, not just those of us who have been “diagnosed,” or who get more visibly derailed, are too busy licking their own wounds and protecting themselves to be able to be attentive and empathic enough to provide the basic level of support you need.

      Case in point: people who expect you to live by the same terms they live by, and to perform at the same level. These egomaniacs assume that your life is the same as theirs, and they tend to live by such myopic expectations to the extent that they are consistently disappointed with the people around them (because they can’t predict what others will be like, because low and behold, others are not like them. To some, this is an unforgivable offense.) Having been so let down by your parents, I’m sure you understand how useless it is to let your own mood and your essential love of humanity be defeated by other people’s limitations, or, for that matter, to hold their limitations against them. We are all capable of causing harm, and we are all capable of the opposite.

      We all need to fuck up and we all need to love. We all need to accept and be accepted. This is how humans survive. The more understanding and open you can be, the more you and everyone around you will flourish. That said, vulnerabilities must be acknowledged in any relationship, and this should serve as a guide for what kind of rapport will be appropriate. Since you are particularly vulnerable at this stage in your life, it is imperative that you understand your need for help and also your entitlement to it. Don’t let the crushing shame you feel prevent you from saving your life! BUT be selective about who you turn to. A friend recently reminded me of the REM line, “not everyone can carry the weight of the world,” and I think this is important to remember. People who have stable situations and families to turn to are not always aware that they need to take responsibility for those who don’t, but some people DO get it, and those people can and will carry you, as you will carry others when you too have the means to do so. Academic institutions are vast; I’m sure that if you look carefully, you will find the right kinds of allies who will help you to navigate the system and to grow beyond whatever is stifling you.

      I think you’re right, I think we are experiencing some similar struggles. Everything I say to you is, of course, something I need to tell myself right now. Keep hoping. Don’t listen to the world that doesn’t value you; listen to the one that does. If you don’t manage to find the support you need, try to become that presence in the world yourself. Don’t get lost in loneliness. Hold some beautiful people as close as you can. Keep reaching out! Keep speaking out! The internet is a good place to begin.

      Be kind to yourself and take care as best you can,

      1. whatladder Post author

        ECCENTRICS AND EMOS? How rude!

        Srsly, though, I think there is an issue with a lot of academics who are not really aware that there are variations in learning (not just with people with learning disabilities, but that there are varieties in learning style). It took me ages to work out how to teach to people who learn differently to the way I learn, and that was prompted by working in a Learning Unit.

  6. Alison

    Learning Units ? Sounds interesting. Can you post a link about it?

    I hear the whole concept of learning styles is a little controversial, but I don’t think you can really go wrong with repetition of content and varieties of stimulus…

    The biggest problem for students who struggle ridiculously much, I find, is really the anxiety that never lets up, which is what I was responding to in that rambling letter to Nullifidian. The fear and shame of the situation alone will do one in before one can even begin to deal with one’s original disorders and disabilities.

    I am still struck by an anecdote from my boyf, who is a brilliant and passionate student, but who has pretty pronounced ADHD and who struggles to get his readings done and his critiques written out for a writing workshop he is in. Apparently, when it was his turn to contribute to a discussion about a story he hadn’t read, he felt obliged to make an apology to the whole class about his conduct all year, stating that, in comparison to them, he didn’t even deserve to be in university.

    He’s young and well supported, so he’s going to be okay, but it saddens me deeply, that even the most milk fed kids with disabilities are prone to these feelings. They create a hopeless, futureless pit, and I’ve seen a number of lives ruined by it.

    I think for some of us, having a chance to fail at something feels luckier than not having the chance at all. We try to hang around in struggle, even though we know we don’t fit and no one can really tell us how to, until maybe, hopefully, something will give…. Or, I guess, until we get kicked out.

  7. Pingback: A post for Alison « What Ladder?

  8. Jessica

    I think this is a really important discussion without a lot of “right” answers. Like you, I am one of those people that has just always done very well in school, and never gave much thought to how I learned best (until I was an adult). I also worked in my college’s Learning Center, first as an English Lit and writing tutor, and then as its Assistant to the Director. And while I guess there is no statute of limitations on “snowflakeism” I dare say that while it wasn’t THAT long ago, it was well before the entitlement that is rampant today (as in, guess what? Sometimes I did poorly or received a bad grade, and sometimes I didn’t feel like it was entirely my fault, and I had to SUCK IT UP, because that was how the cookie crumbled!).

    A couple of my own observations:

    As the Director of an adult literacy non-profit that dealt with adults who read at or below a 5th grade level, I learned that to be “officially” diagnosed as LD, there has to be a significant discrepancy between ability (often measured by IQ) and educational outcomes (grade-level of work produced). MOST of the (native English speaking) adults that were in my program came in announcing that they were “diagnosed” as LD, and as a result, did not learn to read and/or write. Before I really knew what being LD entailed, I took these statements as gospel, and tried to teach them skills using the methods appropriate to their specific learning disability. When people were not progressing enough, or AT ALL, I got a grant to have anyone who was interested fully and professionally tested. And what do you think the outcome was? The VAST majority of these people were NOT LD, but slow. Meaning that most had IQs in the 70 – 80 range, which meant that they were not likely to ever surpass an elementary / middle school level of academic achievement. This caused problems on several fronts, but most notably it was a crushing blow to the student to be told that they would likely never pass the (at the time new) GED exam, which required skills at an 11th grade level, and that they had not only been misdiagnosed, but mis-educated.

    An IQ in that range also puts many students in the unenviable position of being “slow,” but not “slow enough” to be labeled Special Ed or receive the level of help that developmentally disabled students do. So most just gave up and dropped out, not only unable to read, but completely untrained for any kind of work that would lead to a decent living wage.

    On a personal note, I have been a life-long anxiety and panic sufferer. And while that did not OFTEN interfere with my academics, it did make school itself very difficult to deal with at times. I kept the issue to myself until the beginning of my junior year in college, when I was returning to school after a particularly horrendous summer of panic and agoraphobia. I was very anxious about returning to school, and the physical constraints of a classroom, specifically. I went to each prof and explained my situation, and asked if they would be ok with me in their class knowing that I *might* have to leave the room at some point(s) (and I said I would sit near the door, and be mindful of not being disruptive). All but one was understanding – the one (art teacher oddly) said that she thought it best that I not take her class. I though about trying to tough it out, but I felt like just the knowledge that even a trip to the bathroom might piss her off would make it too anxiety provoking for me, so I did not take her class. I never did have to leave a class due to anxiety, and I think that knowing I had an understanding professor helped in that regard.

    So, I guess my long, rambling post doesn’t offer any solutions, but perhaps (maybe?) a bit of insight….


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