What Is Reasonable Accommodation?

I’m running into a problem with our disabilities services office, which on our campus reviews and manages student requests for accommodations such as extra time, alternative exam formats, and the like. In the opinion of some of our faculty, this office regularly moves from its management role to a more charged advocacy role that at times has become almost adversarial, especially in terms of pushing what might the boundaries of a “reasonable accommodation.” As chair I’m caught in the middle of this. I occasionally get informed by the office that some faculty are not being especially helpful, with the implication that I should intervene or pressure them. Similarly, faculty seek my support for the limits they believe they need to put on the office’s requests, which can include telling the office to respect the faculty member’s decisions. I’m sympathetic with both parties–how do I manage these sort of situations effectively?—Professor Ada Quandary
Dear Prof. Quandary,

Disability access has always had an element of advocacy. How could it not? After all, ongoing demands for access have generated the most arresting disability images of recent times: people in wheelchairs chaining themselves to government buildings and being carried away by security. In addition, non-disabled people are often unaware of the ways they can support disabled people, such as by providing large print copies of assignments, describing images in powerpoints, and the like. The Americans with Disabilities Act, like so much civil rights activism, would never have been considered by Congress had it not been for decades of lobbying and activism by people with disabilities and their advocates.

At the same time, the language of the ADA mandates reasonable  accommodations, not carte blanche reshaping of the entire educational experience (that’s another conversation). “Reasonable” is a fairly vague standard, though, and since you haven’t given specific examples of the accommodations students are requesting, it’s hard to know whether what’s being asked for is reasonable or not. Faculty members’ job is to do what they can to make it possible for disabled students to do well in their classes, but where to draw the line is a valuable question.

In situations of conflict like this, where you feel stuck between the Scylla of the disability services office and the Charybdis of your resistant faculty, the best remedy is conversation. First, I’d recommend that you sit down with the director of the disability services office to express your concerns. Indeed, I would encourage a chair to have meetings with key offices—disabilities services, equal opportunity, student services, and the like—before a specific issue arises. Building relationships now can help when problems arise in the future. 

Whenever you meet, approach the director in the spirit of cooperation: if they’re inclined to be adversarial, this could help defuse the situation (people anticipating conflict are often disarmed by a genuine display of a collaborative attitude).

Even better, after your conversation, have the director come and do a presentation at a department meeting, where they can clarify your campus’s policies around disabled students and  take questions. After your meeting with the director, talk to the faculty who are complaining. Find out exactly what their concerns are. Is the problem the perception of combativeness from the office of disability services? A sense that students are asking for exorbitant accommodations? A combination? You can at the very least reassure them that the director of the office will be coming to a department meeting to talk these issues over. Before the department meeting, you could prime both parties: let the director know that they might face some pushback but that on the whole faculty want information, and encourage faculty to see the office as an ally in pedagogy rather than an adversary.  Don’t forget: everyone has the same goal, which is student success.

As with so many conflicts, as chair it’s crucial that you reassure all parties of the good faith of the “other side.” Faculty members are concerned that what they see as excessive demands will interfere with their pedagogy. The disability services office is concerned that disabled students will not get a fair shake in the classroom. In reality, they’re all on the same side. So the task is to find ways to accommodate disabled students and faculty members at the same time.

—The Chair

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