Imagine you are a faculty member, and a student—who, you think, looks quite healthy—brings you something called an accommodation letter from the Office of Accessible Education (OAE) after class. In it, the letter asks you to give the student extra time to complete assignments and to excuse occasional absences from class. For privacy reasons, the letter explains, you are not given the reasons for these accommodations. As an instructor, you want to accommodate your student’s needs, but you also feel a little uncertain about the process behind the OAE’s letter.
The OAE’s new faculty guide is comprised of five short videos that aim to make this process—and the student needs underlying it—more clear. With titles like The Interactive Accommodations Process and Balancing Accommodations with Academic Standards, the series aims to share more about what the OAE does and how faculty can interact with the office.
In the hypothetical case described above, the video Invisible Disabilities might help the professor better understand the situation. The term refers to disabilities that are not clear simply by looking at a person. Approximately 15% of Stanford undergraduate students are registered with the OAE, and of
these, 70% experience such ‘invisible’ disabilities.
The video showcases the experiences of several students and notes the wide range of invisible disabilities—from chronic illness to learning disabilities to depression—that might spur the OAE to issue an accommodation letter to faculty asking for some modification of standard course procedures for a student. Along with each video in the series, Invisible Disabilities offers insights into both the personal stories and the official procedures that underlie the OAE’s mission.
To learn more about the role of the OAE on campus and how the office works with students, faculty and teaching assistants, I spoke with Dr. Joan Bisagno, Assistant Vice Provost and Director of the OAE, who has been with the office for 18 years. She provided more information about different elements of the OAE and some of the key issues and challenges they address.
‘Accessible’ is the key term in the office’s title. Dr. Bisagno emphasized that the primary focus of the OAE is on ensuring that students with disabilities—whether visible or invisible—are afforded the equal opportunity to learn at Stanford. Legally, the office is charged with helping the university meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Amendments Act (2008) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
In practical terms, OAE staff are involved in a range of activities including evaluating professional documentation of disability, meeting with individual students to assess their needs, drafting accommodation request letters to faculty, and running the separately-funded Schwab Learning Center (which provides one-on-one assistance for those struggling with learning disabilities or ADHD). The OAE also supports initiatives like the campus DisGo golf cart transportation service, which helps ill, injured, or disabled members of the Stanford community get around campus more easily.
As the Invisible Disabilities video highlights and Dr. Bisagno reiterated, many people forget—or even express skepticism about—the range of disabilities that are not visible, such as cancer or mental health disorders. With the frequent influx of new faculty and teaching assistants, the OAE is always focused on educating instructors about such disabilities and the accommodations that may be necessary to help these students participate fully in their courses.
Dr. Bisagno noted that too often, people tend to conflate speed at a task with intelligence or competence. But the nature of many physical and psychological disabilities and/or side effects of medication means that certain tasks will take longer for some people, regardless of intelligence. Though there may certainly be situations in which speed is of the essence (e.g., performing a chemistry experiment), in most classroom applications, giving extra time to those who need it is a reasonable accommodation. Though people sometimes argue that all students would benefit from more time, Dr. Bisagno pointed to studies showing that only students with learning disabilities show statistically significant improvements in exam scores when given more time.
Occasionally people misunderstand the different roles of OAE and CAPS (the student counseling and psychological services facility within Vaden Health Center). The OAE does not provide any psychological services; the staff merely evaluates the impact of the psychological condition on the student's functioning to determine what academic accommodations may be needed given each student’s unique situation.
Deciding what measures are reasonable to accommodate student needs is not always an easy or exact task. The first step is to obtain professional documentation of the student's disability and meet with him or her. Dr. Bisagno underscored that the process of choosing appropriate academic accommodations is a partnership between faculty and the OAE. In choosing the amount of extra time needed for an exam, for example, the OAE and the instructor might consider the design of the exam, the professor’s learning goals for the exam, and standard reading speeds versus a student’s speed to arrive at a reasonable accommodation.
Sometimes, requests for accommodation generate thought-provoking questions about the purpose of particular learning practices. Several years ago, for instance, after a student requested a proofreader for a final essay exam, that department held a faculty meeting in consultation with the OAE to discuss the nature of proofreading (e.g., how much does it contribute to the quality of the work?). In the final analysis a proofreader was denied; the essay was intended to measure the student's independent work.
In general, accommodation requests can be questioned by instructors if they feel such accommodation would interfere with an essential aspect of a course. For instance, in-person attendance is a central requirement of many courses, especially those that rely on discussion and participation by each student. If students are unable to attend class, it may be grounds for the instructor to ask that they withdraw and postpone taking the course. In fact in this type of case, the OAE will often counsel the student to do just that instead of issuing an accommodation letter. In cases that aren’t as clear-cut, early communication with the OAE is encouraged.
Dr. Bisagno stressed that the OAE’s goal is always equal access for students, and they strive to avoid either under- or over-accommodation. It is important that faculty be sensitive to student needs, and that they contact the OAE with any questions about accommodations. She explained that “[accommodation] letters are only a starting point” for conversations between faculty and the OAE, and OAE staff are always happy to discuss accommodation practices.
A video for teaching assistants on important Stanford policies including accommodations
Ofiesh, N., Hughes, C., & Scott, S. (2002). Extended test time and postsecondary students with learning disabilities: Using assessment data in the decision-making process. Manuscript in preparation.
Ofiesh, N., Mather, N. & Russell, A. (2005). Using speeded cognitive, reading, and academic measures to determine the need for extended test time among university students with learning
disabilities. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 23, 35-52