“I need to talk to you about something.”
Toward the end of a semester, I always had a handful of conversations with students that started this way. Students who hadn’t turned in any term work, or who hadn’t attended class, or who had earned low marks came to my office to confide in me.
“I’ve been struggling with my learning disability.”
“There was a death in my family and I haven’t been able to focus on academics.”
“I’ve been suffering from depression.”
“I spent weeks in the hospital.”
“I’ve been going through some stuff.”
These students wanted to know how they could avoid failing the course.
This was not because their hardships weren’t serious or didn’t represent legitimate stumbling blocks to academic success. But at the end of the semester, there was rarely anything I could do. It was too late to grant an extension or to arrange for alternative assignments to replace missed classes. Protecting the integrity of the mark, the course and the degree meant that I couldn’t simply waive requirements or calculate a mark based only on work that a student had submitted.
All these students could do was petition the Faculty of Arts and Science for late submission of term work. Approval of such a petition was far from guaranteed. No matter how much sympathy I had for my students’ predicaments, the decision was out of my hands.
It’s not uncommon to experience something that interferes with your studies. Physical challenges, emotional, mental or familial struggles, learning disabilities and illness can all make it difficult to achieve academic success. What can you do, when faced with one of these difficulties, to ensure that you don’t end up compounding a trying situation by failing a course or falling into a vicious cycle of falling behind and scrambling to catch up?
The answer can be found in an observation I made in an earlier post advising students to visit their instructors’ office hours and get to know them. In that post, I wrote that students do not always take advantage of all the support available to them at a college or university. Two of those under-utilised resources are Accessibility Services and the Office of the Registrar. A visit to one of those two offices could have helped the students described above avoid end-of-term desperation, a low mark and the uncomfortable experience of revealing intimate details of their lives to their professors.
These offices’ names and policies differ across universities, but the basic principles are the same. At the University of Toronto’s St. George campus, students who already have a documented disability can register with Accessibility Services, which offers similar services as at many other post-secondary educational institutions. Importantly, students who are having trouble and think they may have an issue that requires accommodation can also request a consultation. Once registered with an Accessibility Services office, a student can meet regularly with her disability counsellor about her needs in light of specific courses and individual assignments. The disability counsellor will then correspond with the student’s instructors and arrange for the appropriate accommodation.
What are the advantages of this more pro-active approach in seeking accessibility help?
Our co-founder, Dr Lindy Ledohowski with the other companies participating in the 2nd Accessibility Innovation Showcase along with Canada’s Governor General in May 2017.
The lines of communication are open. The worst thing students can do is isolate themselves. Instead of finding out about a student’s needs when it is too late tohelp, professors know that there is an issue early. They can make an accommodation that will allow a student to complete his work and finish the course successfully.
Professors can make the right accommodation. Professors are not experts in learning disabilities, illness, mental health or anything else that might justify special consideration. Disability counsellors know what accommodation is best. If an extension is in order, they know how much extra time is reasonable. Working with Accessibility Services ensures that a student’s accommodation is tailored to that student’s needs and designed to facilitate academic success.
Students don’t have to reveal private information to instructors. I always endeavoured to be approachable and hoped that students felt comfortable talking to me about difficult subjects, but I recognise that this was not always the case. I know that I had professors in whom I definitely would not have wanted to confide. Typically, a disability counsellor will write to an instructor and simply say that a student has an issue that necessitates an accommodation and that Accessibility Services has documentation on file. This way, the professor or teaching assistant can trust that there are legitimate grounds for accommodation without forcing a student to disclose anything that she doesn’t want to reveal.
Accessibility Services can arrange for a volunteer note-taker, usually another student in the course, who will make her notes available to students registered with Accessibility Services.
If it becomes necessary to petition for late submission of term work, the petition is much more likely to be accepted if it is supported by Accessibility Services.
A disability counsellor will work with a student to help develop techniques and practices for managing a condition and achieving success. This helps ensure that an extension is more than a temporary relieving of pressure, avoiding the vicious cycle mentioned above.
Sometimes the Registrar, or an academic counsellor, is the appropriate place to turn rather than Accessibility Services. Just as disability counsellors will coordinate with professors to determine the best accommodation, Registrars also communicate with instructors when a student presents legitimate grounds for an extension.
Given the availability of these resources, why do many students end up making a desperate appeal to a professor as a semester comes to an end?
They don’t know the full scope of the issues covered by Accessibility Services. For example, many students are not aware that Accessibility Services can arrange accommodations for short-term injuries as well as ongoing physical, mental and learning-related issues. This seems much easier to accept in the case of physical disabilities, but it’s just as true with less-visible impediments to academic success.
Getting the right supports in place can make all the difference in overcoming writing anxiety.
They don’t want “special treatment.” I’ve frequently encountered this sentiment. Some students want to succeed or fail on their own terms. Students have told me that they think it would be unfair to work under different parameters or be evaluated by different standards than their peers. This is an admirable impulse, but it rests on a mistaken premise. Accommodation for a disability is not an unfair advantage. On the contrary, it levels the playing field so that a student with a learning challenge can compete equally.
They don’t know that they have an issue that would be covered by Accessibility Services. Many students have developed coping strategies throughout their schooling so that a learning disability or mental-health issue has remained undiagnosed. Often, the pressures of university reveal the limitations of those coping mechanisms and make previously managed challenges unmanageable. That’s why it is imperative to consult with Accessibility Services even if you’re not sure that your difficulties stem from an accessibility issue.
They don’t realise that Accessibility Services also has resources for students who do not qualify for individual attention from a disability counsellor. Many Accessibility Services offices host workshops on study skills and other aspects of academic success that are open to all students. Furthermore, many Accessibility Services offices provide lists of resources for academic success that are useful for all students. EssayJack appears on such lists of recommended resources but is useful to all students, not only students registered with Accessibility Services.
As educators and creators of a digital platform for academic writing, we want students to have access to all the resources they need for success. We want a level playing field, and we want to do whatever we can to ensure that a student’s mark corresponds to that student’s ability. At a college or university, this is a team effort. It also requires students to take initiative. Ensuring that you take advantage of everything that Accessibility Services offices provide is a key way to take responsibility for your education, get necessary support and find out about resources, both within the university and tools such as EssayJack, to facilitate your own academic success.
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