About this blog.

My son was diagnosed with PDD-NOS at 24 months. I created this blog to bring meaning to the often-confusing label. Sometimes I have answers. Other times, just more questions.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Label Junkies: University Edition

This week I'm taking a break from interventions to ponder another lofty subject - accommodation.

Law.com reports: Princeton Student Sues Under ADA for Refusal of Extra Time to Take Exams. The learning disabilities at hand read like a "best of" edition of The Mislabeled Child:

Mixed-Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder, which limits her ability to comprehend language, express language or recall material.

Disorder of Written Expression, which leaves her ability to communicate in writing below the level expected based on age, intelligence or life experiences. When she writes, she has to repeatedly re-check what she has composed.

Developmental Coordination Disorder, which leaves her ability to spell, punctuate and form sentences below the level expected based on age, intelligence or life experiences. She needs to read material several times over, isolate key words and highlight them so she can locate them again. Also under this disorder, her visual-motor processing skills are in the sixth percentile, "far below the average person, let alone the typical Princeton University student." She also suffers eye strain when taking tests and needs periodic breaks because of the way she reads passages over and over.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which limits her ability to focus. When reading, any distraction requires her to go back to the beginning of the passage.

It appears that, in a policy shift, Princeton's Office of Disabilities gaveth and then tooketh away:
Metcalf-Leggette learned of her diagnoses in 2003. Later, at the private school she attended, she received a 100 percent time extension for exams; a 100 percent extension on the SAT; and a 200 percent extension on the ACT.

Her older brother, David, who also had learning disabilities, graduated from Princeton University in 2008 and was given 100 percent extended time for exams while there. Metcalf-Leggette says she was told his extended time was approved by the predecessor of Eve Tominey, the director of Princeton's Office of Disability Services. Tominey left the extended time accommodation in place for David Metcalf "as a courtesy," the plaintiff says in her suit.

On the issue of accomodation, I hate to be wishy washy, but I can't help but see both sides.

First, the rights of the learning disabled must be weighed against the rights of the nondisabled. Educational institutions should attempt to level the playing field without giving the learning disabled an unfair advantage. How to accomplish this, I'm not sure. I'll reserve judgement on this one since there is so much I don't know.

Second, the rights of haves must be weighed against the have nots. In many places, it costs thousands of dollars to obtain a diagnosis by a neuropsychologist. So what about those who have a learning disability who can't afford to get a diagnosis (or whose parents don't know to pursue one)? The current system rewards the haves.

Third, the slope is slippery when you consider extra exam time for ADD/ADHD. Where do you draw the line?

And last, on a personal note, I feel emotionally invested in appreciation for individual learning style. Obviously, because my life is touched by it. Take history, for example. Can't schools test a pupil's command of the subject matter without making it an exercise in speedwriting? Can't teachers in grammar school slow down and appreciate that not all children can follow rapid pace multi-step commands? I worry about these things!

I will close with some choice comments on the lawsuit, via the Blackbook Legal Blog. First, an impassioned defense of accomodation:
Do some folks take advantage of the system? Sure. But the system is there to help those who really have a serious need and just require a bit of leveling the playing field to demonstrate they have the same knowledge as their non-disabled counterparts. If not for accommodations and technology I would still be a college fail out, instead of having 3 degrees with honors.

All I ask is a fair chance to show that despite my disabilities, I still know the law, and I can still practice the law. I know my limitations, I know my weaknesses, and I am not asking for anyone to feel sorry for me or give me an advantage over anyone else. All I ask for is the use of the technology I need and the time to use it, then let me rise or fall on my own. My grades, the vast majority of which were earned un-accommodated and my getting to within 11 points of passing the bar exam in half the given time show I know the law, I just need a bit of extra time to show I can write the law in a readable manner.
And one commenter makes light of the label junkie-ness:
I was always a bit suspicious of these claims (I must admit that when I read the list of conditions the plaintiff was claiming it seemed like something from the Onion, I was expected to see "intelligence deficit disorder"). Even assuming they are 100% legitimate, I thought a fair compromise would be to allow the student to take the tests untimed but to make clear that these students could not receive a class rank without taking the tests under the same conditions as everyone else.
I ressemble that remark.


Nyx said...

I think that the notion that how long you take to answer a question is relevant to whether or not you have mastered psych 101 is ridiculous. Am I the only one who thinks that the obvious solution is to simply give all the other students the same amount of time that the putatively disabled student is being given? If you do this, you eliminate all spectre of unfairness. As for other sorts of exams which are deliberately given under time pressure ... I think it is highly suspect whether the time element does any sort of fair weeding out in the first place. Why are we as a culture so obsessed with speed? Haste makes waste. I realize that maybe at a certain point you have to set time limits just so instructors aren't hanging around all day proctoring, but give me a break, that's not what is going on here. Academia is in love with the idea that the smartest guy is the first to hit the buzzer. And there is always that horrible hazing attitude, like gosh, if I had to go through {fill in your favorite ridiculous baptism by fire} then by God everyone coming after me should have to as well.

Anonymous said...

So true. Such diversity within one species in every way imaginable. "Reasonable" accomodation makes sense, but the complexity and variability of when, where, how much, and to whom is a messy can of worms. The answers just aren't simple.

Kris said...

I have to agree with Nyx. I don't know why speed is so important. It really does seem to have become an important part of testing though. My kids' school is in love with "Math Masters" which tests how many math facts you can complete in 1 minute. I know the point is they are supposed to know the facts really well, but to me the kids who can WRITE the fastest often get the best scores. My ADHD son was at a huge disadvantage despite being very good at math. He had poor fine motor skills for one thing and his attention was spotty at that age. Another kid tapping his foot next to him was enough for him to blow the test.

I don't know why we are so obsessed with speed. On one hand we tell our kids "Take your time", "Check your work" and then on the other, SO many of their important tests are timed.

I agree...give all the students extra time. Giving an advantage to a student with learning disabilities is always going to raise questions, that's just human nature. It is hard to know when to draw the line. When is it "enough" of a disability to warrant special accomodations?

K said...

what an interesting post - -

The last comment - about leaving the person unranked ( in your actual post - not your readers comments ) - I am quite in disagreement with of

I think people see things in black and white terms when the world is a gray area world
Why this lack of generosity in accommodating disability ?

Laura said...

Thanks for the thoughtful notes. I liked the adequate time for all approach. And K, I think it's what Nyx said: some regard school as some sort of hazing ritual. "I survived such and such and now I expect you to do the same under the exact same circumstances"

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