Disabilities R Us

Over the last decade, programs to accommodate students with disabilities have been installed at most institutions of higher education, spurred largely by government mandate.  Like George W. Bush's failed No Child Left Behind Act, with Title I provisions to aid the disadvantaged, the thinking is that no student should be left behind owing to disability.  This measure is a subset of the "social justice" movement that seeks to equalize job and social outcomes irrespective of talent, competence, personal input, and professional responsibility.

Nobody wants to de-privilege the disadvantaged or the suffering.  The disability fetish, however, has adversely affected the performance of the average student, created enormous difficulties for teachers, and complicated administrative procedures to the point of functionary chaos.

I have recently examined an accommodation document issued by a university, which I won't name.  The data are stunning.  Student A requires extended time for assignments and exams.  Student B requires a word-processor with spell- and grammar-checker.  Student C must not write more than one exam per day.  Student D requires one day between exams.  Student E requires "mind maps" (i.e., cheat sheets).  Student F needs N.C. (noise-canceling) headphones to prevent distraction.  And so on all the way down the alphabet.  Indeed, even as I write, a professor at the University of Guelph has been suspended for allegedly chastising an anxiety-disability student.

There are at least six obvious problems with the disability regime of the modern university, listed here in random fashion.

First, there is the problem of invisible disabilities, which far outnumber physical ones.  When is test anxiety, for example, anything but a normal occurrence, and why should it be classed as a pathology requiring accommodation?  We have all been through this and survived.

Though many disabilities may be genuine, the opportunity for suddenly developing a qualifying infirmity is immense and has undoubtedly been taken advantage of by the thousands.  A number of disabilities can easily be faked; in addition to test anxiety, there are agoraphobia, depression, bipolarity, panic attacks, "struggles with mental health" – and those that aren't deliberately manufactured may still be more a matter of interpretation than a measurable impairment.

Second, accommodations to produce so-called fairness are likely to produce the opposite.  With extra time, cheat sheets, and ancillary software, a "disabled" student may do better than a regular student, who is writing exams on successive days or two exams in one day, whose spelling and grammar are not impeccable, who is distracted by surrounding noise and the presence of other students, who is not permitted to profit from extra time, and who is forbidden from using what Harvard educator David Perkins in Smart Schools approvingly called "person plus" implements (mind maps, memory aids, etc.).  The accommodation process is manifestly unfair to those students who neither demand nor seek indulgence and are in danger of ending up with poorer grades than their pampered peers.  It may also produce a state of demoralization in the ordinary student, who naturally resents the favored treatment accorded others and may be tempted to board the gravy train by purchasing a false disability ticket.

From this follows a third problem: unmanageable numbers.  When the program was first installed at a university with which I am intimately familiar, the numbers were readily treatable – perhaps a few dozen students.  Now, judging from the information to which I have been made privy, the student disability ratio is almost one in ten.  All a student lobbying for disability status lacks is a letter from a psychologist, easily acquired, in many cases scarcely worth the paper it's printed on (and a lucrative source of income for the provider).  The numbers are more than the university bureaucracy can effectively handle, leading to confusion, unresponsiveness, rank inefficiency, and costly student lawsuits against administrative incompetence.  When a system designed to handle at most a few hundred applicants must now accommodate several thousand, the predictable result is organizational bedlam.  The genuinely disabled inevitably suffer.

The fourth problem seems insoluble: the university is running out of classrooms to accommodate the growing number of disability claimants who require their own private venues for exams and tests.  It is by no means unlikely to find one student sitting alone in a classroom while teachers scramble many blocks from campus to invigilate their exams in inadequate rooms in decrepit buildings.  The university begins to resemble a slum.

The fifth problem has to do with the legal liability incurred by professors who are vulnerable to readily fabricated student grievances, generally on grounds of discrimination.  "Disability" students (i.e., not necessarily "disabled" students), much like their "transgender" counterparts sensitive to pronoun violation, are apt to take revenge on their teachers for perceived slights, affronts, offenses, bias, bigotry, ableism, indifference – legally supported by human rights legislation.  Instructors are not permitted to know the nature of the ailment or disability from which the student presumably suffers and often, owing to unteachably large classes of 60 or 70 students, are not aware until the final day of class which name on tests and papers corresponds with the individual who wrote them.  Any student who "feels" discriminated against can launch a human rights complaint against the apparent offender. It is not uncommon to find a mystified teacher standing before a hostile human rights tribunal with no means of defending himself against a nothingburger accusation.

A sixth problem is procedural.  Access services typically demands that exams for disability students must be submitted days before the actual exam date to allow for processing time.  Sometimes this means that the exam must be prepared before the course is over.  How a teacher can be expected to properly compose and submit a final exam before all the material has been covered in class has apparently never occurred to the disability proctors.

In the final analysis, it is the university itself – where every second administrator is a diversity officer and almost every first administrator is a spineless excrescence – that has become disabled, turning into an institution "no less disabled than many of the students it cossets and graduates."  The modern university – particularly the social sciences and the humanities – has become a sinkhole of ineptitude and a chronicle of despair, stretching the definition of "disabled" to include any and every invented excuse for refusing to meet one's curricular obligations while compelling pedagogical assent – a surefire recipe for stagnation and decline.  We are all the less for it.