Culture & Society

The Problem With Disabling

How colleges—and the law—are impairing student education and resilience through too many accommodations

Image Credit: Maskot/Getty Images

My part-time job of notetaker for a student with cerebral palsy was humbling. For two years in the early 2000s, I accompanied Jason (name changed), a fellow undergraduate, to his classes on Chaucer, communications and political science, taking detailed notes as he answered the professors’ questions and participated in class. During exams, he would dictate answers while we sat in the Office of Student Access Services. His work paid off and he graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Without a notetaker, as without a wheelchair, Jason would have been physically unable to access the class as well as its material, and to demonstrate his knowledge and aptitude.

The accommodations offered to Jason were a rarity when I was a student and even when I was beginning my college teaching career, in 2009. As a new professor, I would receive on occasion, and certainly not every semester, letters from accessibility offices alerting me to a student’s disability-related needs. These letters almost always detailed physical limitations that prevented students from managing the classwork, such as needing a notetaker or providing closed-captioning on videos. These accommodations—“the modification of policies, practices, and procedures; the provision of auxiliary aids and services; academic adjustments and modifications to the environment intended to remove barriers to equivalent access”—are mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Amendments Act, specifically Section 504, which was intended to give equal access to educational opportunities and to prevent against discriminatory practices against people with disabilities.

Over the past five years, however, my academic colleagues and I anecdotally noticed a significant increase in the frequency and type of accommodations being requested by accessibility offices. Unlike Jason’s need for a notetaker due to the physical limitations from cerebral palsy, the majority of these recent requests are almost exclusively for a burgeoning number of college students classified as having mental health issues (particularly anxiety or depression) and learning disorders or attention-deficit disorders, even when those conditions do not significantly impact a student’s life activities.

The days of receiving one letter from the accessibility office every once in a while are over. It is now routine to have multiple students in each class providing a letter requesting accommodations. These include needing up to twice the amount of time allotted to take an exam; requesting permission to miss a class due to anxiety or a therapy appointment (“flexible attendance”) or to take an oral exam in private or by another means of assessment due to anxiety; and requests to negotiate flexible submission dates for assignments that are not available to others in the class.

Upon further research I have found that the increase in the number and scope of accommodations is not anecdotal, nor a kind of confirmation bias. It instead reflects recent changes to the ADA Amendments Act that expand the definition of what is a disability to the point of being meaningless—changes that have opened the door to accommodations that fundamentally change course structure, content and assessments. This increase also reflects an evolving sensibility that removing obstacles and making things much easier for students is the best way to ensure equity rather than equipping the next generation with strategies and tools they need to meet challenges in a workforce—and in life—that will often not accommodate.

Colleges’ attempts to comply with the law has relied on “cheap” and easy accommodations such as giving students more time on exams or “get-out-of-class-free” cards, rather than providing them with cognitive strategies, literacy tools or other support to succeed in class according to the intended standards. It weakens, rather than strengthens students, and makes a virtue of that weakness. It pursues short-term, superficial “equity” at the expense of long-term outcomes that ensure self-reliance and economic mobility. It creates a culture where easy outs are normalized, desired and socially contagious, under the unassailable shield of medicalization, and the understandable sympathy the term “disability” conjures.

This shift is not empirically validated; it goes far beyond the scope of the ADA Amendments Act which aims to provide equal access to educational opportunities. Ironically, it has backfired in its ability to, as per stated goals, provide justice to poorer people in general, and to Blacks and Latinos in particular. This shift is neither compassionate nor progressive. In fact it is quite the opposite, providing significant opportunities to those with the means to secure more accommodations than those with fewer.

In 2016 a remarkable one-fifth of the undergraduate population in the United States was determined by their college to have a disability, with learning disabilities, attention-deficit disorder and the psychological issues of anxiety and depression comprising the vast majority of these disabilities. This is an enormous shift from the pre-2010 era, with classifications and accommodations doubling in just 12 years. New York State Department of Education data sets provide a dramatic snapshot of this nationwide trend. Even as higher education enrollment has contracted, the number of those classified as having a disability has grown spectacularly, with a 53% increase between 2015 and 2022 among those seeking degrees or credit-bearing certificates. There was a 130% jump in those with mental health disability classifications and a 33% increase in neurodevelopmental disability classifications (more than 50% of which were ADHD, followed by learning disabilities).

Even without knowing the legal and institutional changes that contributed to this jump, the data cries out for an explanation beyond the hopelessly facile conclusion that the sheer quantity of disabilities existed five years ago but went unaddressed, channeling students to unavoidable academic failure. Indeed, there were contributing legal and institutional changes. Among the most significant, the ADA Amendments Act and associated regulations opened the floodgates as the definition of disability broadened. Intangibles like concentration, learning and thinking were listed among the life activities that a disability could restrict; ADHD, anxiety and dyslexia also were now among the disabling conditions listed.

The new premise is that such problems don’t need to be chronic, nor do they need to severely restrict a student’s life in any meaningful way. Furthermore, the focus has shifted away from formal diagnoses, so there’s no longer any need to provide extensive evidence through medical or independent professional documentation. Disability office staff can rely on a mixture of student self-reporting and the staff’s own observations and professional judgment in determining whether a student has a disability meriting an accommodation and what that accommodation might be. At the same time, the prominent organization of disability service professionals, the Association on Higher Education and Disability, issued a guidance saying these changes were necessary to promote social justice in higher education.

Not surprisingly, an institutional bureaucracy grew to meet the demand for disability classifications and accommodations. Whereas in New York in the 2015-2016 school year, there were only 1,775 full- and part-time staff in higher education with accessibility office roles, by the 2021-2022 academic year, there were 4,200. With this growth, the academic literature on accommodations and disability classifications reveals a shocking hodgepodge of empirically unvalidated, overly loose practices among disability office staff in handing out accommodations and classifications, and a range of accommodations that go far beyond the imperative of making sure students are able to access and participate in college classes.

As already noted, this disability classification inflation has resulted in record numbers of students asking for up to twice as much time than allotted to peers to take an exam. Not only does the literature argue that there is no basis for these specific time extensions in any type of theory, but certain disabilities for which extended time is given (like attention-deficit disorder) may not even require it. Of course, if offered the opportunity to have double the amount of time on an exam with little proof of necessity required, most students will take it. And so, evidence is popping up of students “performing” slower reading than they are capable of for the benefit of accessibility office staff.

Extended time is actually among the least disruptive to the guarantee of a fair learning environment of the accommodations frequently requested. I have personally received accommodation letters stating that students are to be given the option of not doing an oral presentation or doing one only in front of me instead of the class (to reduce anxiety, although the letter does not specify this disability), as well as letters essentially giving students a get-out-of-class-free card at any time for anxiety disorders. (If anxiety is a disability, it should surprise no one that there are now calls to make “test anxiety” a disability that receives accommodations.) In which case, nearly all students could claim this temporary disability.

In addition, students can request alternative test formats, other test-taking locations, extra time for other assignments like essays, course waivers and substitutions and adjusted attendance policies, including a hybrid schedule. Once the professors are given a letter of accommodation, they are required to comply. These accommodations not only are detrimental in their not helping students prepare for a lifetime of responsibilities that cannot be abridged. Just as importantly, even in the way in which they are allocated is not evening the playing field.

Contrary to the best social justice intentions of Association on Higher Education and Disability and disability office staff of each university, broadening disability classifications and making their associated accommodations easier to acquire has mostly benefitted individuals who are anything but marginalized. Although research shows a relationship between learning disability classifications and socioeconomic status (e.g., those with the lowest income and the highest income were more likely to be classified as disabled than middle-income students), the students most likely to get an accommodation are those from high-income families and those who attend the priciest, most selective colleges. Consequently, 27% of Amherst, 26% of Brown and 22% of Barnard students get accommodations. In fact, there was a 292% increase in students classified with disabilities at the top eight liberal arts colleges over the past 12 years, which led to their having a student population with a 4.25 times greater percentage of students with accommodations than in community colleges, which serve a disproportionate number of low-income students and students of color.

Just as well-off students have the ability to pressure their therapists into prescribing “study drugs” like Adderall, Ritalin or Dexedrine, so too do wealthier students know how to get their therapists to write letters attesting to their attention- and anxiety-linked issues that will be used by accessibility offices to mandate more test time, alternative testing formats and get-out-of-class passes. But even most disability office staff do not believe that a 292% increase in students classified with disabilities signals a change in underlying conditions so much as increasingly prevalent attempts to gain advantage. One study shows that 90% of staff, seeing the often-paltry documentation accompanying students, believe that some students diagnosed with learning or mental health disabilities may actually not be limited by them for doing their college work, in the way accommodations suggest they are.

Some well-intentioned, social-justice-minded academics have used the above indicators of the prevalence of disability perks among upper-class students to argue that this inequality must be reduced by making sure those with more material resources get accommodations less while those with fewer resources are given more accommodations. That is, there should be more classifications of disability for low-income and Black and Latino students, more attempts to market accommodations to these students and more effort to persuade professors to steer these students to the disability office and give them double time on tests. This is exactly the wrong conclusion because it will deprive the students most likely to face a challenging world of the tools needed for workplace success, self-reliance and resiliency after they complete their education.

What is occurring is that the expansion has led to a distortion of the term “disability” beyond the narrow confines it should take of denoting serious limitations to one’s ability to perform daily physical activities, and, in the case of college, to physically access and be able to demonstrate mastery of the curriculum. The word has been broadened well beyond the intended equalizing role and now encompasses what is best defined as issues or challenges. The co-mingling of “challenges” with “disability” is indicative of a cultural trend to valorize victimhood versus resiliency.

Students who grapple with anxiety, depression, the inability to concentrate, difficulty with reading or fear of speaking in front of classmates, should not be ignored or dismissed. The K-12 educational system should have already given them a solid footing in addressing these issues, however, in college reasonable accommodations can be made. Students should be given access and encouraged to attend therapy, in the case of mental health issues, and to work with tutors, reading specialists and learning disability specialists in the case of challenges with difficulties with comprehension, attention, reading and writing. However, by labeling students with these issues as disabled and providing them an accommodation that doesn’t aid in promoting agency or give them tools to overcome and compete with their peers, disability offices are exacerbating the problem and kicking the can down the road.

Professors may pass these students, often under the pressure of a disability office. But the students will enter the workforce—and life—expecting a lowering of bars rather than being trained to scale them. It is highly unlikely a manager will give them double the time to complete a task as they give others, and many careers require reading and executing tasks in expedient fashion. These students may be given superficial, short-term equality in the form of higher attendance scores or test grades. However, the education they are receiving—in spite of the insistence that accommodations do not fundamentally alter the curriculum, standards or rigor—is less rigorous and is altering the curriculum, making a college degree even less an indicator of one’s ability to analyze, process and problem-solve at an advanced level.

Many of the students who are accommodated are actually being badly shortchanged. Long-term equality means that college students of all backgrounds, including those marginalized by race or income, should graduate with the ability to take an exam in the format intended, read at a pace that would be expected in a professional career and make an oral presentation … in front of a group of people. If, at the college level, students are unable to meet universal curricular and testing standards with the support systems of tutoring and therapy in place, the college should not change the bar to ensure that they do. No driving school would allow students to do their driver’s exam on a closed road, with a bumper car or grant them time and a half to decide whether or not to merge onto a highway, even if the student had anxiety or a learning disability. The rubber needs to meet the road in college.

It is time to push back against the pervasive creep of disabling college disability classifications and accommodations. Otherwise, we will continue to degrade the rigor of the college curriculum and standards and, ultimately, the significance of a college degree. Most importantly, we will have saddled students with a belief in their frailty, in a workplace that will provide them with lowered expectations and severely damaged the resiliency they need to succeed in their post-academic lives.

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