When Accommodations are Less Than Accommodating

Dean of Disabilities Polly Waldman. photo credit: andrea cantor '17

Dean of Disabilities Polly Waldman. photo credit: andrea cantor '17

Throughout my time at Sarah Lawrence, three professors have denied my disability accommodation. As a student with Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD), which in layman’s terms affects a person’s comprehension of verbal speech, I require subtitles on all audio/visual material. Three professors that incorporated audio/visual material within their course, however, claimed subtitles would not be beneficial for myself or other students. One professor even went on to add that subtitles “would ruin the movie experience for the other students.” When I asked him if I could watch the film on my own, he replied, “Then you would be missing the movie experience.” All three professors suggested that I watch the movie both in class without closed captioning and out of class with subtitles. Watching the films twice, while others only had to see it once, hardly seemed like an accommodation that would allow me to be on equal footing with the other abled-bodied students.

The first two incidents were during my first year at Sarah Lawrence College. After both instances, I went to Dean of Disabilities Polly Waldman, who works with students to write out accommodation letters tailored for each class. She offered to contact the professors. Fearing repercussions from my professors through grades or treatment in class, I refused the offer. Instead, I went to my screenings, realizing the true interruption to the movie experience was when I constantly asked the people next to me what was just said.  It appears that had my accommodation been accepted, as is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), then all the students would have had an accessible way to enjoy “the movie experience.”  

Fortunately, during my junior year, I took a class on health policy and activism with Sarah Wilcox. For the first time, I had a professor who made sure that all audio/visual had subtitles and if they were unavailable, she made sure I could watch the material on my own.

The point here is not to shame the professors who denied me and other students their accommodations. In most cases, the professors do not fully recognize that they are enforcing a discriminatory practice. In my case, the professor genuinely did not want me to miss “the movie experience.” What he failed to realize was that without closed captioning, my disability hindered my comprehension so I would assuredly miss it.

Other students have also faced similar situations with their professors. Leila Chediak ’17 has documented Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Her accommodations mainly consist of professors communicating any unforeseen changes in the syllabi and going over her drafts and outlines prior to deadlines. Yet as Chediak points out, the accommodations that a student works on with Dean Waldman are not always seriously handled by the professor. 

Many professors do not even realize that accommodations, which are addressed to them, are for them to keep. As Chediak stated, “Even if you have these letters about your accommodation, I feel that you have to be persistent to actually get your accommodations. It isn’t with all teachers, but it is with a lot of teachers.” Last year, Leila sent a section of her conference draft, a week in advance, to her professor. Understandably, the professor had a family emergency and was unable to go over her draft. However, while he said he would get back to Leila, he never communicated with her or offered an alternative accommodation.  “It felt uncomfortable. I am a student and he is a teacher so it was really stressful,” she recalled. Conversely, this year Chediak is taking a class with David Peritz, a professor who not only took her letter, but also reviewed it and emailed her with an acknowledgement. Chediak praised her other professor, Melissa Frazier, who encourages drafts from her students. Chediak said, “I didn't even feel like I had a disability.”

The student run group, Disability Alliance (DA), has been focusing on the student-teacher relationship in regards to ADA accommodations. Co-chair Rebecca Gross ’17 said, “It's something that comes up a lot in Disability Alliance meetings.” DA plans on implementing additional teacher training on ADA standards and providing students with more information via events and written material on the ADA. At Sarah Lawrence, Gross explained, “I personally believe that the vast majority of professors want to do the right thing.  They want to create a successful learning environment for all of their students, including those with disabilities.” However, Gross acknowledges the reality of those times where professors do not abide by the ADA, as she affirmed, “It is vitally important to go through the right channels [Dean Waldman] when you feel your rights as a student are being violated.”

In total, the number of reported professors breaking ADA rules has been relatively low. As Dean Waldman numbered, “There have been very few cases,” mentioning that she can count the amount of incidences on her hand. For the times that an alleged violation does occur, Dean Waldman explained the appeal process. First the professor must explain why the accommodation “fundamentally alters the objectives and the integrity of the class.” For example, if a person has a disability that interferes with their ability to write, an accommodation that says they do not have to write papers is not reasonable. However, if the course requires four papers, a possible accommodation could be that one of those papers is an oral report. Dean Waldman stresses the point that a student must be proactive. Students cannot work retroactively. If at the end of the semester, a student realizes that they needed an accommodation, unfortunately it is too late. After distinguishing between a reasonable and unreasonable accommodation, Dean Waldman can either reject the professor’s appeal or offer alternative accommodation. For instance, if you need note taking assistance, but the teacher rather not have the class taped, the student is still entitled to note taking assistance, such as getting another student’s or the professor’s notes. 

In conjunction with DA’s plans for this year, professors should be conscious of how they interact with students with disabilities. Although our school’s record of discriminatory practices in regards to disabilities has been low, even one student being unlawfully denied their accommodation is too many. The importance here is equality, but it is also important that students know their rights and faculty know the consequences. At any time a student may file a complaint through the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and potentially sue the school for discriminatory practices. Yet, Dean Waldman is a strong resource and she is able rectify many situations. As Dean Waldman suggested, “My advice is to come to me and we will work with the faculty member.”

My advice is to speak up if you face a discriminatory practice. There is undeniably a power dynamic between a student and a teacher, but that should not infringe upon your rights as a non-abled body. Learning how to be a self-advocate is just as important as any class you may take. 

Andrea Cantor '17


SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.