I am an instructor at a community college in California. On occasion, a student with a documented learning disability will sign up for one of my courses. I do my best to provide them the additional care required with the aim of providing an equivalent learning experience. This often results in many extra hours of work beyond my contract. I don't mind, as I can usually find time to do it fairly well so that I feel right about it. I typically have just a few of these deserving students every semester which makes volunteer time manageable.

I have an amazing coworker that has an abundantly caring persona in addition to being a hard worker. She has been great with disabled students over the years, and has garnered a reputation with students, counselors and others as being the "go to" instructor for learning disabled students. In any typical semester, she could have 10 to 20 learning disabled students choosing her class over other instructors' classes.

This has made her workload impossible to do well over the years and decreased the workloads of others. As this point, the amount of work required to be effective for her students is way beyond her contracted hours she gets paid for and not reasonable. She is doing everything she can do, but her workload has become literally untenable and is now causing serious health issues. Unfortunately, her caring generosity is well known with counselors and online through sites like www.ratemyprofessors.com. The counselors have been asked not to push students specifically into classes based who teaches it, however, the problem persists. She is taking the lion's share of work while other instructors' workloads have lessened. Consequently, her health issues have worsened.

The instructor is not interested in extra pay. She has already repeatedly asked the college for additional support to no avail. As a last resort, I would like to know if there is any policy or law on the books at the state or federal level that limits the number of documented learning disabled students an instructor is required to take on. Surely, there has to be an upper bound. Case in point, I would think it would obviously be unreasonable and impossible to manage a workload like mine if all students in all of my classes were learning disabled. I would not be able to do my job effectively as there are not enough hours in the day to do all that is required for these deserving students.

The goal here is to find an immediate solution that will reduce the extreme number of hours of extra (off contract) work that my coworker is taking on so that she can can get healthy again and also provide our disabled students fair access to a quality education, which they are not getting as she is overworked.

Is there any law that limits the number of disabled students that any instructor must take on in a given semester? If not, do you have any ideas for other solutions?

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    You're thinking about the wrong end of the problem. The correct end is your college administration, who needs to a) pay you and your colleagues for the reasonable work you do; and b) resource enough additional support to make the workload managable.
    – Arno
    Sep 2 at 22:18
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    I don't think it is a question of pay as @Arno suggests, but one of support. Perhaps she needs a team. Perhaps the entire faculty needs to organize the courses so that faculty have more or less balanced workloads and students get their needs met. Team teaching, or something like it.
    – Buffy
    Sep 2 at 22:27
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    Probably the best bet would be for the students with disabilities to sue the college if the college is not providing sufficient resources, but this seems like a legal advice situation that isn't well-supported here. I'm not a lawyer but I doubt very much that the ADA puts the responsibility on individual instructors to carry all of the weight for their institution in compliance.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 2 at 22:38
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    @Bflat Oh, then I had misunderstood. So the question then is: How do you make your administration do their job, which is supporting and enabling the teaching staff to deliver good quality teaching without working themselves to death.
    – Arno
    Sep 2 at 22:44
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    What does the college's disability services office say? Do they know about this? They might be able to exert more leverage to reallocate resources. Sep 3 at 1:41

The criteria for disability accommodations is that they be "reasonable" and that they maintain equal or equivalent academic standards. The school also must provide "equal access" to students with disabilities. So the case your colleague needs to make for an administrative solution is that what she is doing is (1) necessary for equal access compared with both her own nondisabled students and with nondisabled students in other sections and (2) unreasonable.

It certainly sounds like (2) is the case, but for (1) she would need to convince them that she isn't just being "too nice." Postsecondary schools have pretty much no legal obligation to uphold any kind of standards for quality instruction, but they can't provide better instruction to nondisabled students.

On the other hand, she could lean into this and get the dean to set up a section specifically for LD students. I don't know California law and I have no direct experience with CCs, but this should be perfectly legal, although I suppose there is some risk of a lawsuit being threatened from nondisabled students angry that their favorite teacher has been taken off the market. But you would need the disability services office as an ally, and the fact that they bounced you back to the dean makes me think that they are under-resourced as well and that the school just doesn't care very much about serving LD students.

As a final suggestion, she could try to restructure her course on her own so that it is designed with the needs of LD students in mind (ie, "universal design") instead of designing it for non-LD students and then doing a lot of supplementary work to adapt it to LD students. Possibly the dean could also restrict enrollment through more conventional methods such as just putting her in a smaller room. If there is a campus organization for students with disabilities, it might be possible to enlist their help as well.

It's too bad there is no union. This story is a textbook example of why faculty need to be unionized.

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    By far, the best suggestion yet.
    – Buffy
    Sep 3 at 15:37

Such a large fraction of our students are neurodivergent in some way which affects their learning needs that we plan all our classes with common needs of such students in mind. As such:

  • All classes must have any audio/visual aids (such as powerpoint slides) available ahead of time, and be designed with dyslexic, ADHD and autistic/aspergers students in mind as much as possible.
  • Notes must be availalbe in printed form for all students
  • All lectures/classes are recorded and made available to all students. All recordings are automatically subtitled.
  • All reading lists are annotated with what is absolutely essential, what is recommned, and what is just for interest.
  • It is policy never to demand an answer to a question from a particular student in public.

These adjustments deal with a large fraction of the needs of divergent students - not all, but they mean that a minimum is just part of the standard process of preparing a class, and the time alloaction to all classes provides for this work, irrespective of whether there are neurodivergent or disable students signed up.

Implementing such a policy has several benefits:

  1. Time allocations already take account of some of the extra time neccessary to make classes accessible to disabled/neurodivergent students.
  2. All instructors will be forced to improve the accessibility of their classes, and so the gap between them and your colleuege in terms of attractiveness to students with different needs will be reduced.
  3. Less time will be required to make adjustments for students with very specific needs.
  • Exactly. When divergent students are regarded as needing "special" attention, it's worse for everyone. Sep 3 at 17:32
  • This is really a great list and I'm stealing it. What is the policy regarding in-class work that requires focus and attention (eg, problem sheets) or in-class group work? Sep 3 at 18:11
  • Some excellent ideas, but I rather get the impression that OP's institution is not prepared to spend money on this. If "printed form" means hardcopy, then that has a budgetary implication; and I'm guessing that your university is probably using subscription-charging external services for the recording and subtitling of classes (Panopto?) and for the coveniently annotated reading lists (Talis Aspire or Leganto?) Sep 3 at 19:10
  • @DanielHatton Yes, hardcopy has cost implications, but I print, like, 20copies for a a 40 student class (most students won't want a copy), and yes we have softare that auto-captions our recordings (kalutra, not panopto), but I write up and annotate reading lists my self without any software. Sep 4 at 0:03
  • @ElizabethHenning We don't have rules about in-class work or group work, although so many of my studients have LSPs (Learning Support Plans) that suggest they should not be forced into gorup work, that Id proabably never insist on it, unless it were a major outcome of the module. Sep 4 at 0:05

The instructor should not inherently be doing extra work for learning disabled students.

This answer will not be a happy one. Like the OP, my teaching career has been composed of teaching at community colleges (two sites in the U.S. northeast). In both cases, there was a dedicated office of disability services that coordinated and provided extra support and services to learning-disabled students. The instructor is not obligated to provide extra services on their own recognizance.

To be clear, the instructor may be contacted by disability services as they arrange certain services, e.g.: permission to use a calculator, have an assigned note-taker in class, extra testing time (proctored at the dedicated office), etc. Once in a while there is even a bit of debate over things being asked of the instructor by the disability office, and (successful) pushback from the academic department.

I'll also say that, unlike the OP, I'm at an institution that is well unionized, and has a very clear contract for faculty. Extra time spent on engaging with learning-disabled students is not among the job obligations.

Sadly, yes, the community college does get lots of learning-disabled students, and it is a great challenge and a great heartbreak to see them struggle with college, and in most cases fail. In the past I've very roughly guessed that maybe half of our overall student population may be in that situation (I'm certainly no expert!), and that the disability services clearly don't have resources to properly serve them all. (Related question.)

But that doesn't mean that the instructor should sacrifice their personal time and health to fill this gap. Nor can they; the abyss of need is far too deep.

What is the solution to the individual instructor? The pickings seem slim.

  • Some have suggested "universal design" for teaching, in which course procedures are learning-disabled-friendly from the outset in some way. However, when I've researched that for my subject (math) in the past, the suggestions (from non-math-proficient education writers) were painfully infeasible/incoherent for the discipline.

  • I know of one college near me whose math department commits to seeking multi-million dollar grants annually, on a perpetual basis, so as to provide extra corequisite teaching supports for students with special needs (not necessarily specific to the learning disabled). Not something an individual instructor can arrange.

The OP states that they've exhausted all options for extra support with local administration, and I'll assume that's true. To their core question:

Is there any law that limits the number of disabled students that any instructor must take on in a given semester?

To my awareness, there is no such law in the U.S. (or California, not that I'm an expert there). Such a regulation would frankly be counter to the overall practice of around the institution, in fact. U.S. states use the community college to pretend that anyone can achieve a higher education degree, taking the entire population of poorly-prepared and certified high school degree holders, funding it at a relatively indigent level, and mostly shrugging at the 20% or so graduation rates that result.

It's a hard job to be on the ground here, trying to help, trying to manage your own emotional well-being, and witness the pain and failure. In the past I've compared it to being in a MASH triage unit.

A seminal essay on this subject was written in 1960 by Burton Clark, who taught at U. of California, Berkeley, titled The "Cooling-Out" Function in Higher Education. It uses as a case study San Jose City College, a community college in San Jose, California. I found it to be quite eye-opening when I read it, and stunningly on-topic for our landscape today. I highly recommend it for you and your colleague. From the abstract:

The wide gap found in many democratic institutions between culturally encouraged aspiration and institutionally provided means of achievement leads to the failure of many participants. Such a situation exists in American higher education. Certain social units ameliorate the consequent stress by redefining failure and providing for a "soft" denial; they perform a "cooling-out" function. The junior college especially plays this role. The cooling-out process observed in one college includes features likely to be found in other settings: substitute achievement, gradual disengagement, denial, consolation, and avoidance of standards.

Judging from the last 60+ years of the institutional dynamics, it seems monumentally unlikely that any more assistance is coming for you or your colleague. As I've said to colleagues many times: you need to defend your time, and your mental health, first and foremost. Your colleague is taking on extra work (a Sisyphean amount of extra work) of her own volition, which is not part of the employment agreement. Your colleague's choice is clear: she either needs to stop, or else she will become irrecoverably sick. Self-care is essential.

Take care of yourself first, or else you will become unable to help anyone else in the future.


As to the specific question at the end of the post: "Is there any law that limits the number of disabled students that any instructor must take on in a given semester?"

The answer to this is almost certainly "no" because I cannot see how anyone would legally define terms such "disabled student", "take on", etc. There is no reasonable way to say that someone cannot teach 1000 disabled students in general -- for example, I see no particular reason why teaching 1000 students with physical disabilities some mathematics cannot be done.

The question you are really asking is not actually one related to "taking on" special needs students, or about any specific number. The question you are asking is about an instructor having a work load related to the teaching they do that is above and beyond what an employer can expect from an employee. The situation is really no different than a McDonalds branch asking an employee to grill 100,000 hamburgers per day -- it simply cannot be done reasonably in an 8-hour workday.

So, if you want to go seek out relevant laws, you should look for laws that limit the number of hours an employee can be expected to work given the contract they have. This is something the law can regulate. Of course, in the end, the law still isn't going to give you what you probably want: Is it productive to sue the university? In the best of cases, the university provides the support for this instructor that is necessary to actually guarantee that (i) students receive the support they need, (ii) your colleague gets to have a reasonable workload. But this is something that the university should really come to understand even without a lawsuit, and a lawsuit is unlikely going to improve the relationship of the instructor with the university.

In reality, I believe that the only real avenue forward is to continue talking with the administration to make them understand the severity of the situation, and to make clear that there are only two possible outcomes: (i) the instructor is provided the help they need, (ii) the instructor burns out and quits their job. Any manager who comes to understand these kinds of choices will recognize that (i) is by far the less painful way, but it may require that multiple people with knowledge of the situation and the trust of the administrators make this point in a forceful and convincing way.

  • 7
    Color me cynical, but my guess is that the administration de facto wants the instructor to quit so that they can be replaced with someone who will just pass all these students without a serious attempt at helping them learn anything. Almost all public universities in the US are under serious political pressure to look like they have as many successful students as possible without sufficient resources to actually help them succeed (as opposed to having the appearance of success). Sep 3 at 0:49
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    @AlexanderWoo It's not just about resources. American higher ed in general has a long and dishonorable tradition of treating students with learning differences like crap. Sep 3 at 1:57
  • @Wolfgang Wow! Thank you for your incite and you make strong points. On a side note... although I agree that lawsuits shouldn't be needed, they are sometimes exactly what's needed. Often the threat of a lawsuit is enough. Yes, I have to agree that it's not optimal for some relations, however, it can also be very beneficial for some relations. I have experience with this and do not regret doing the right thing even though it disrupted some of my relationships on campus. It strengthened and improved the lives of many others on campus and was worth it. : )
    – B flat
    Sep 3 at 5:52
  • You mentioned that "there is no reasonable way to say that someone cannot teach 1000 disabled students..." That may be true but it is not practical. If 1000 physically disabled students showed up a 1000 person capacity lake, I would think the lifeguards might ask for some backup from the lake supervisor to ensure a reasonable level of safety don't you think? I think what's missing here is practicality.
    – B flat
    Sep 3 at 6:23
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    @Bflat I agree it's not practical unless their disability is that they are hard of hearing. The issue at hand is that it is very hard to define what "disability" actually entails in a context. It is about the needs of someone, not that they are disabled. And it is that the needs of people drive workload, not the fact that they are disabled. Sep 3 at 17:14

Statistically speaking, female faculty do more of certain tasks than male faculty. This might be an example of that, in which case gender discrimination laws might be of use to your colleague.

Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed way to fix this problem because students with learning disabilities will inevitably be undercounted.

I'd suggest that your colleague should seek a new job.

It might also be possible to avoid telling students who is teaching this colleague's courses until the day classes start. This may be difficult to organize and of little use if your students are prone to late registration.

  • 1
    Thank you for your suggestions. I am hoping she can avoid seeking a new job as she is an amazing instructor. Also this will inevitably push this burden onto another popular instructor.
    – B flat
    Sep 2 at 23:41
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    And will also likely disadvantage the students even more.
    – Buffy
    Sep 2 at 23:43
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    @Bflat It's also kind of a crappy thing to do to the students, however well-meaning towards the instructor. Sep 3 at 1:45
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    Every college I've ever heard of lets you drop and register and the first day, so it would still be possible for people to switch sections, so blocking instructor names just creates headaches for everyone with very little effectivity. Sep 3 at 16:04
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    @AzorAhai-him-: Consider that (a) there is often an extra fee once the term starts, (b) sections may be filled by that time, (c) LD students may not have the capacity for quick turnaround time on a particular date (esp. if handlers/helpers are busy). I've worked in a dept. where that policy held for many years (against my wishes). Sep 4 at 14:00

Shouldn’t learning disabled students be separated into different courses from students without disabilities? It doesn’t make sense to teach everyone the same way if people have differing needs and some people have needs that require a great amount of attention. One size fits all education doesn’t work, because additional resources must be provided regardless. I would recommend establishing a separate program or major of study for students with differing needs or transferring disabled students to a different program or college that can serve their needs without overworking any current staff. Otherwise, hiring additional staff specifically to address the needs of learning disabled students would be the only other option. The current staff who is known to be competent and popular can train new staff on addressing their needs. Limiting enrollment of disabled students would help the overworked staff but doesn’t resolve the issue of providing adequate education for disabled students since they will need to find alternate programs.

  • Interesting points. Thank you.
    – B flat
    Sep 3 at 6:28
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    Typically the law expects learning disable students to be mainstreamed as much as possible. Or they may have a choice to be in a special class. At the school district level special ed classes may have students who are oppositionally defiant or very difficult in other ways. Being in a mainstream class can be a much better experience for the student.
    – nickalh
    Sep 3 at 7:27
  • @nickalh Mainstreaming is really only an issue for K-12. Sep 3 at 15:01
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    -1 This is simply not a thing (in U.S. higher education). I suspect it may even run counter to certain state or federal laws. I'd challenge answerer to find such an example documented at any U.S. higher education institution. Sep 4 at 14:05
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    @DanielR.Collins Requiring neurodivergent students to segregate would probably be illegal. Offering classes designed for them and restricting enrollment is not, and I've seen it done for certain required courses in math or writing. Sep 4 at 16:00

Remove instructors names from the courses prior to signing up.

Quite frankly, a university should design its courses so that it doesn't matter who's teaching them, simply as a matter of equity to the students - students who get taught by instructor A shouldn't have any particular advantage over students who get taught the same course taught be instructor B. There should be processes in place to make sure that all the instructors teaching a course are marking consistently, for instance. As a result, it shouldn't matter to the students who the instructors are - so there should be no reason to publish who is going to be teaching what course prior to the commencement of those courses.

You mentioned in your comment that one of your students threatened to sue the last time the university tried to remove this information- and my response to that would have been "Go ahead, we have more money than you do," since unless the student in question was the child of a multimillionaire, it's highly unlikely that they'll have a budget that approaches that of even a small university. Additionally, I'm not a lawyer, but I really doubt that they have any legal grounds to sue over.

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    I do understand the idea that the instructor of a course should not matter... but, especially at R1 places in the U.S., it is most often a definitive feature. The notion that "math is independent of people" and so on is arguably false, and ridiculously so. There is the invidious mythology among "research mathematicians" that "teaching" is the thing anyone can do, after they've lost interest in research. Yes, this is awful, but... well, anyway, it's not my fault... and I do push back on this in my own dept, but there are many dynamics that preserve this... Sep 3 at 2:32
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    To be clear: no it is a disservice to students to not announce the instructors. Yes, it is a disservice to the good teachers that they have a higher load. Yes, this does effectively reward less-than-the-best teachers... No, higher admin has no incentive to change this. No, bad teachers have no incentive to compensate good teachers. ... Dang. Sorry. Sep 3 at 2:34
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    @nick012000 The idea that it shouldn't matter who is teaching a course is absurd and dehumanizing.
    – Arno
    Sep 3 at 8:04
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    Every college I've ever heard of lets you drop and register and the first day, so it would still be possible for people to switch sections, so blocking instructor names just creates headaches for everyone with very little effectivity. Sep 3 at 16:05
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    @nick012000: "The instructors should all be teaching the same material, ideally from a central learning management system, of course." This one statement almost has too many facts wrong to count. At minimum, there's academic freedom issues/overlooks meta thread on "academia varies more than you think". Sep 4 at 14:03

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