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I've talked to several colleagues who have expressed frustration at the amount of and kind of accommodations that some students receive. I know the Approved Position is "the disability office knows what's best so you can't question them". But what if it seems legitimately unfair to the other students in my class?

There are some students who several colleagues and I believe are abusing the system. Not doing work for months in every class every semester, then requesting "accommodations" at the end of the semester that amount to significantly less work than the average student. Also they have the benefit of solutions being posted, etc.

I know our position is not the Approved one. But if I honestly think a student is abusing the system and getting away with significantly less work than the average student, do I have any recourse?

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  • 30
    Are you a student or a professor?
    – Buffy
    Mar 27, 2023 at 12:09
  • 63
    The first step would be to take your questions to the disability office itself. Have you done so? Requesting accommodations at the end of the semester does not sound reasonable if the underlying condition already existed at the beginning. Mar 27, 2023 at 12:11
  • 32
    Which country are you in? The mechanics and legal framework will vary.
    – alexg
    Mar 27, 2023 at 12:13
  • 12
    It seems odd to me that these accomodations are being made retroactive- Are these students presenting you with an accomodation letter at the start of the semester? Does the letter from your disability services office say that they can turn in any assignment at any point in the semester? Mar 27, 2023 at 19:12
  • 12
    What is an example of an accommodation that results in less work on the part of the student? For all of my students receiving accommodations, the most frequent one I see is more time, not less work. Mar 28, 2023 at 17:17

13 Answers 13

52

In the US, disability accommodations do not need to be applied retroactively by law. Many institutions state explicitly in their policies that retroactive accommodations are not required. I did not find any example where retroactive accommodations were considered part of policy. Some examples:

UW–Madison:

Students should not expect accommodations to be retroactively applied to course assessments or materials for which due dates have passed.
[...]
Faculty are not required to retroactively implement accommodations for course assessments or materials for which due dates have passed.

University of Montana:

Students with disabilities are responsible for requesting accommodations in a timely manner. The University is not required to provide retroactive accommodations.

The University of Iowa:

Accommodations are not retroactive.

University of Miami:

Accommodations will not be granted retroactively.

Loyola University:

In general, professors do not have to provide accommodations prior to the delivery of the accommodation letter from the student.


Of course, you're required to follow not only the law on these things or the policies of other institutions, but rather the policies of your institution. I would check to see whether your institution has a posted policy on application of retroactive accommodations, and if it's not clear, ask to have a conversation about it with your disability office.

I do think in some cases it may be appropriate to consider some retroactive accommodation, just like it's appropriate to consider offering flexibility for students for various other reasons besides disability. I'd consider especially the timeliness and where the students are in their studies. For example, if students are in their first semester of university education they may be having their first experiences with not being able to perform well without accommodations, or may be experiencing stronger symptoms coinciding with the new university environment. However, your depiction:

Not doing work for months in every class every semester, then requesting "accommodations" at the end of the semester that amount to significantly less work than the average student

doesn't immediately suggest this is the case. I think if you want to make an argument to your disability office that you should not be expected to make retroactive accommodations, you could use the policies from other institutions in your argument. I would not make these arguments directly to your students or implement a unilateral policy against retroactive accommodations, though: your quarrel is not with the students but with your institution's administration of accommodations.

33

The "Accessibility Resource Center" where I work explicitly invites instructors to contact them if the suggested accommodations do not work. Not all my requests to them have been dealt with in a way that keeps me happy, but many were. Policies were altered in some cases, while in other cases ad hoc adjustments were made.

It takes time to have these discussions, so one must choose one's battles. I find "the disability office knows what's best so you can't question them" to be a caricature, but it could be accurate where you are. Of course, I can tell tales where our office was inflexible. I am sure such tales are told about me. This site is full of tales of woe. It is not always that way.

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    I feel that we received responses quite similar to what you describe as caricature from the inexperienced accommodations employee at Lake Forest College in Illinois, overriding the clear recommendation of an educational psychologist's evaluations. They are now the subject of a federal civil rights complaint. Nov 5, 2023 at 23:09
21

I'm going to guess this is the USA. The delicate aroma of the ADA wafts over this question.

The ADA is quite controversial. There are a wide variety of complaints, both from the POV of it going too far and not going far enough. You can easily find them on Google, and it's quite a bit outside this SE's topic to discuss it.

However, I would suggest you want to tread carefully here. People get excited about the ADA and anything connected to it. Pretty much regardless of your position you will find that there are people upset with you over it.

So, before you dive into this fight, gather yourself a bit and scope out what the results might be. See how "those who went before" have fared. See if they produced changes you thought were good. A little searching for news articles on the subject in your local university and city might be instructive.

There may not be a solution within your university. The administration may be hamstrung by laws and entrenched policies, both at the state and federal level. And the personnel involved in enforcing those policies in the university are likely to be quite intractable, even quite hostile to people who resist.

You may be faced with a choice of putting up with it, moving to a different political situation (probably a different state at least), or finding a political solution (new leadership at least within your university, maybe as far as the state level). None of those is attractive, I admit.

21

Faculty in my department have successfully pushed back against unreasonable accommodation requests (USA, college in a large urban university).

As others note, this depends on a rather deep matrix of interrelated institutional factors:

  • State law
  • National law
  • Institutional policies
  • Possible union contract language
  • Position of accessibility services
  • Position of the academic department
  • Specific staff in all of these roles

In our case, we have a very experienced, capable, and proactive department chairperson who is willing and able to defend us against unreasonable requests.

One of the things that our accessibility office somewhat took advantage of is the capacity of new or adjunct instructors to receive their demands and not know if it's truly a management requirement, or whether reasonability is a thing they might even need to consider. Once our chair finds out and takes up the case, the proposed accommodations sometimes evaporate without an argument. (E.g., if it would obviously violate our union-contracted workload numbers.)

So the first step is not to try to deal with this in your own silo. Have a conversation with your department chair or other mentor about what your department's policies, practices, and experiences currently are. Given that so many local factors can be at play, that chat will likely be more informative than anything we can say here.

13

In Sweden, teachers are by law allowed to conduct examinations in the way they see fit for their subject (with some limitations regarding needing to follow the approved syllabus, etc.). A consequence is that any accommodations are always up to the teacher, the disabilities office or exam administration can only make recommendations (or, in the case of exam administration, refuse to administer your exam, which would mean you are on your own conducting the exam). So yes, in Sweden you are definitely free to disagree with certain accommodations.

However: note that being legally permitted to do so does not mean freedom of the consequences. If you decide, on a blanket basis, that you don't do accommodations anymore, expect massive pushback from affected students, student unions, and potentially program managers and your own managers. This may have severe implications for your student evaluations and evaluations you need for promotion.

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    I'm really wondering why this was downvoted. (One might of course argue that this Swedish approach gives too much power to the individidual teachers; but this answer does not argue for or against this approach - it apparently simply describes facts, and thus answers the question for the case of Sweden.) Mar 28, 2023 at 15:23
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    In case somebody is wondering, the argument behind that is not that teachers should be able to say "I don't care if you are blind, you write the same test as everybody else", it's more the acknowledgement that there are many different forms of assessment, and it's difficult for a central entity to say if a certain disability would disadvantage a student in a discipline-specific form of examination, or what an alternative assessment form would look like that tests the same skills. Hence they describe the condition and provide recommendations, but then leave the decision to the subject expert.
    – xLeitix
    Mar 29, 2023 at 11:05
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    Of course this leaves this model open to abuse by unreasonable teachers, but that's in practice really not a problem. I do not know a single teacher that does not follow the recommendations in the vast majority of cases, adapting them only in the rare case where the recommendation simply doesn't work or doesn't make sense in the course context. If a student gets recommended additional time in a written exam, or a quiet exam hall, you tell exam administration to given them that and that's the end of the story.
    – xLeitix
    Mar 29, 2023 at 11:15
  • 1
    @JochenGlueck: if this is of any clue - I am with SE for 10+ years and never understood the idea of downvotes. They are supposed to highlight that "an answer is not useful", but are often used to disagree with the answer. I guess the downvoter was not happy with the Swedish law :)
    – WoJ
    Mar 31, 2023 at 8:14
9

As others have pointed out, the result may be determined by the laws of your country, and there will be little you can do about that.

However, you have written, "...'accommodations' at the end of the semester that amount to significantly less work than the average student..." That means the students are getting significantly less learning, presuming that work is assigned to students for pedagogical reasons.

That seems like something that should concern a body such as a faculty senate. Such a body probably has more influence than one or two individual faculty members.

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    Not really a part of the answer, but reasonable policies seem to me to be "no retroactive accommodations," and "students with accommodations must complete the same work as others." In the latter case, extra time might be granted, but the students still have to complete the work. In the latter case, you can defer posting solutions until the deadline those with accommodations has passed.
    – Bob Brown
    Mar 27, 2023 at 14:24
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    I would say before going to the faculty senate, the professor should talk directly to disability office staff. Present the problem and ask them to help think of solutions. I get the sense that this faculty member is just conversing with students, as I have never been asked for this type of thing by the disability office…
    – Dawn
    Mar 27, 2023 at 14:43
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    @Dawn Talking to the disability office first is probably a good idea, at least for the politics. If the professor really is just talking with the students, i.e. not getting disability accommodation instructions in writing from the disability office, then that's a big problem and possibly easy to solve. However, I'd be surprised if the professor is not getting written instructions.
    – Bob Brown
    Mar 27, 2023 at 14:52
9

Simply put, this is beyond your pay grade. The university has mechanisms in place to assure compliance to their regulatory environment, and you can't really ignore them, and asking them to reevaluate the resulting decisions is likely fruitless.

You can, however, seek the help of the office coordinating such things when the accommodations aren't reasonably providable by you on your own. Also, if the suggested accommodation, for whatever reason, just doesn't work for your situation, to get them appropriately modified or waived. For example, if for some reason the accommodation is that the student gets to take an exam in a quiet room with one proctor, but your examination is oral in front of a board of 4 examiners, you obviously can't follow that direction. In that case, you would contact the office, explain your planned accommodation, so that they may "improve" it, or at least document the variation.

Yes, there are PLENTY of issues about fairness. For example, the evaluations for some of the things people seek accommodations for can be very pricey, and might well be out of reach for some students who could really use the accommodations.

6

Further to earlier answers: depending on what learning outcomes you're trying to assess, it might be possible for you to choose an assessment mode (for all students) that's accessible to students with (the most common) disabilities in the first place, so that no accommodations will be required. If you approach the Disability Office on the basis that that's something you'd like to attempt and you need advice on how to achieve it, I'd expect them to be only too happy to co-operate. Even if it turns out that it's not possible to choose a fully-inclusive mode of assessment for your particular set of learning outcomes, you've then established friendly relations with the Disability Office, which may make future interactions about the details of accommodations more fruitful.

6

You're definitely free to disagree with them, but I recommend against making changes to the recommended accomodations without clearing it with the disability office first as they've already ran the recommendations though the legal compliance process. Having an official sign-off can save you a lot of headache later.

Not doing work for months in every class every semester, then requesting "accommodations" at the end of the semester

If I'm reading you right, the student has done this in more than one semester. That really changes a lot of things and should make your case easier. The student already knew they had a qualified disability - as evidenced by filing accommodation paperwork the previous semester - and then willfully delayed the paperwork for the next semester until it gave them the maximum benefit. The disability office should be able to confirm this by looking through their records to see when paperwork was filed in past semesters. Filing paperwork late in the semester makes sense when someone is first diagnosed with a disability but if they've filed for accomodations in the past, filing paperwork extremely late should have raised some eyebrows at the disability office.

I would definitely approach them from an attitude of "I see a pattern that I think might be abuse of the system, what should I do?" That's more likely to get a positive response than arguing that the accommodations are excessive (set up the interaction as you and the office working together, not you arguing against the office). For best results, have documentation of the specific advantages that the student gets that aren't explicitly part of the accommodation and that wouldn't happen if paperwork was filed when it was supposed to be (like solutions being posted already). Those sorts of details are not always taken into consideration since the disability office doesn't know the details of your course, plus their processes probably assume that all the paperwork is done at the beginning of the semester. At a minimum, they should take the particulars of your course into account and adjust the accomodations so that they give the student what they need without giving them an unfair advantage.

3

As other people have mentioned, assuming you are in the US, there is no such thing as accommodations before the date you are informed of the disability. Students are required to provide the information from the office on the campus to the professor, and it is up to them to make the choice about when and to take the consequences.

However, I'm also concerned about something else you said. Accommodations never should reduce the expectations for students. They cannot excuse a student from doing the work. What they are supposed to do is to is make it possible for students to do the work. Most common is extended time on tests. Sometimes they have a note taker. Or they need to have adaptive software, like a screen reader for blind students, or an ASL interpreter for a deaf student.

Not doing work for months in every class every semester, then requesting "accommodations" at the end of the semester that amount to significantly less work than the average student.

If you have a group of faculty who think that a student has done this repeatedly, then I think that you should speak with whoever runs that department (in a respectful way) in a face-to-face meeting, maybe with your chair. Also, you might want to document the whole thing if it is really the same student over multiple semesters or in multiple classes. This will let you get clarification about these issues. But it also lets that person know that they need to meet with the student in question. (Even if it is multiple students, I would handle each one differently.)

I was going to suggest next steps, but it really depends on what happens.

If you don't already include an "Accommodations" section in your syllabus, you should add one that explains the procedures and spells out your expectations about notification.

Now, if the issue is that you are not providing documents or interfaces that don't use accessible javascript or don't have alt text on your images, that is very different; you should do those things by default or work with the disabilities office to achieve them, as hard as it may be sometimes.

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  • Is it right that accommodations shouldn't reduce the work, or is it better to say that accommodations shouldn't reduce the criteria students are expected to meet? For example you might have two tests in a course testing the same learning outcomes, one as a mid term and one as a final, but only require a student with special requirements to complete one. They have still demonstrated that have met the learning outcome, but will have done less work to do so. Mar 28, 2023 at 8:28
  • I guess you could make that decision but it would seem very strange to me. What would be the rationale for that? Tests themselves are part of the learning process by rewarding studying hard. If a student failed the final and you refused to give them a midterm I think that would be a problem. If the final isn't different than the midterm what did you do in the second half of the semester?
    – Elin
    Mar 28, 2023 at 16:28
  • Pre final Tests are part of the learning process because they allow the student to measure there own learning and work out if there are holes in their understanding before moving on to more advanced concepts. As you say, they also encourage hard work (although I've no interest in rewarding hard work for its own sake). Thus they benefit the student's learning. One can imagine students for whom they do more harm than good however. I would never refuse to give a mid term to someone, but that's different from passing them without one if they still met the learning outcomes. Mar 28, 2023 at 21:07
  • It really depends on the teaching model.
    – Elin
    Mar 29, 2023 at 15:01
3

Being proactive is better than complaining in hindsight.

In our department, disagreements like this are largely avoided because we have had a general discussion with the disability office on what kinds of accommodations are reasonable from our perspective, ie taking account aspects like impact on the workload of the academics and the meaningfulness of the assessment. As a consequence, the disability office has a standard list of accommodations, and is usual able to meet the individual needs of a student by selecting something from the list. Occasionally, additional conversation might be needed, but this is rare.

Don't discuss individual cases.

Nothing good can come from questioning the appropriateness of measures taken for a concrete student. We would usually not know the precise diagnosis (and we probably shouldn't), and even if we knew, we probably lack the expertise to draw appropriate conclusions from it. So rather than discussing individual cases, it seems much more prudent to have a conversation regarding what are and what are not potential accommodations to offer in general.

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  • It's good that your department has hammered out a pre-approved menu of acceptable options. But at other places: say a completely novel and burdensome accommodation is registered for a student. It seems like discussing this unique accommodation is ipso facto discussing the individual case it's applied to. (Obv. I don't suggest debating the student's diagnosis, but in a case like this the unique accommodation is itself an individual case.) Jun 5, 2023 at 21:31
  • Update nearly a year later: I've recently run up against exactly this myself. A novel accommodation was suggested that would totally change my grading/feedback cycle. My chair put it on me to negotiate with the accessibility office. We did discuss the specific student case, and ultimately I convinced them to back off from the disruptive thing they were suggesting. May 1 at 1:21
1

If you are a student, then I'd guess you have no "standing" to complain unless you can show that you are, somehow, disadvantaged personally by this. If your grade suffers because another's grade is advanced then the marking system itself is at fault. This is my objection to "grading on the curve", in fact. In that case, you can complain to the prof that, no matter the accommodation to another, you shouldn't be made to suffer for it.

If you are a professor, then I suggest that you and similar minded faculty request a meeting with the disability officer(s) to discuss the situation and the application of the laws.

I'd guess that such a meeting is unlikely to result in much of any change in policy, but you might learn more about the intricacies of the policy and why it is needed. If nothing else, that might ease your discomfort.

But also note, if you are a prof, that the student position, as stated above, needs to be considered in your grading scheme. You can discuss that, also, with the disability office.

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  • 2
    Does it really need to be proved that a student gaming the system has a negative impact on other students, even if there is no "grading on the curve"?
    – Chris_abc
    Mar 27, 2023 at 14:11
  • @Chris_abc, I don't understand. Do you assume that it necessarily does? It wouldn't at all the way I graded. If you think it must, please say how.
    – Buffy
    Mar 27, 2023 at 14:20
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    A degree is meant to represent a certain level of knowledge and skill in a particular field. When a student games the system, they find ways to obtain a degree without truly acquiring the knowledge or skills required to earn it. This can diminish the value of the degree: Employers, colleagues, and others may assume that other graduates with the same degree are equally incompetent. This can lead to a decrease in trust and respect for the degree as a whole, negatively impacting those who have earned it legitimately.
    – Chris_abc
    Mar 27, 2023 at 14:38
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    Of course, there are legitimate reasons for those accommodations. I do not include those when I say 'gaming the system'.
    – Chris_abc
    Mar 27, 2023 at 15:07
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    It would strongly affect other disabled students. If disabled student A games the system, gets a qualification without having learnt the skills, gets employed, is a total disappointment and gets fired (which may be difficult since they learned to game the system), and then hardworking disabled student B gets a degree, the same company will find excuses not to hire them.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 27, 2023 at 23:37
0

It seems to me that the OP should do two things...

First, figure out why said person/people are seeming to get retroactive relief and seeming to have to do LESS work than the average student and what exactly was the specific nature of the accommodations that were proposed that makes it seem unreasonable.

Second, if this has occurred in the past, that said person/people don't do any work and then wait until later on to either go to the disability office and seek accommodations or wait until late in the process and spring the I have a disability and I need these things done to 'help' me.

OP doesn't say if they are a student or teacher...so that means two different things.

A student is kind of limited in what they can do...other than complain to the powers that be about the perceived unfairness and perceived nature of gaming to system that is thought to be going on.

As a teacher, they could talk to the disabilities office about what they have recommended and how it's somewhat unreasonable -- and can we hash something out that's reasonably fair. Also, something that means that the student doesn't get LESS work, maybe in leu of doing X, they need to do Y, which is slightly more /equivalent amounts of work.

Additionally, they could explore the patternality of the 'requests' --that late in the system, requests are being asked for...and possibly wanting retroactive relief.

As a teacher, they could also pretty much state that accommodation requests should be tendered early on in the process and that would allow the teacher to fold them into their teaching/testing style and processes...e.g. do I do X for a single person or do I for everybody.

Also state that late accommodation requests would NOT be retroactive and that would be evaluated on a case by case basis depending on WHEN the request was received (and subject to the teacher talking to the disability office)...Ok, so maybe you'd be somewhat receptive if the request came after the start, but not too far in (when maybe a student figures out they'll need help with how you do things, that they didn't anticipate) but, very late, you'll be more suspicious of.

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