This is a guest post written by frequent WCI commentator Rachel Goddyn:
My husband is a math professor. Recently at social gatherings with his fellow academics, there has been a lot of discussion of accommodations for people with disabilities. We have a 30 year old son with intellectual disabilities, and I do lots of volunteer work for the agency who runs his programs. Accommodating people with disabilities is a subject near and dear to my heart, so these are discussions that truly interest me.
There are accommodations that are universally approved of. Everyone gathered thinks the campus should be wheel chair accessible, and people who are blind or deaf need modified course materials. Where conflict arises is with accommodations for learning disabilities and mental health disorders.
Dr. J. says that when he gives an A to a student in his calculus class, he is telling a prospective employer that this person will be able to solve integral problems in a work situation. No employer wants someone who can only solve integrals given unlimited time and total silence. Dr. W. says that when she gives an A to a student it means they have mastered the mathematical concepts. She loves math and wishes more people could appreciate its beauty. She would like to see accommodations more widely available. If special software is helping students with learning disabilities, she would like all her students to have access to it. My husband, Dr. L. moans that having 5 students in his calculus class who need special arrangements is cutting into his research time.
All this got me think about what accommodating disability really means. My son, Les, has a rare disability called pachygyria. He loves to watch movies aimed at the 8-10 year old market and that is a good indication of his general intellectual level, but in some ways he is an adult. He wants a cheerleader calendar for Xmas, and in some way he needs more care than a child. He cannot shave himself or brush his teeth and his ability to speak is idiosyncratic.
A few years ago the staff at his day program and residence decided that Les was ready to start using transit independently. First we taught him how to do it (that was the lectures), shadowed him(that was the practice exam), then he traveled alone(the test!!). Unlike Dr. J. and Dr. W, we didn't wonder how our student was doing. The evidence was clear, either he arrived safely at his destination or there was scary panic until he was found. Each time he got lost our accommodations got better. Once he accidentally got off at the wrong stop and his cell phone did not work. A new sturdy "seniors" cell phone with only a few large buttons, was purchased.
Real life accommodations are ones that enable a disabled person able to do something he or she could not do without them. Accommodations that don't work are quickly abandoned. I have seen people at Les's day program provided with expensive communication systems. If they don't work, they are soon gathering dust. But at the university the success or failure of accommodations is not always clear.
Given how much I have seen Les and his friends accomplish, I tend to find myself supporting Dr. W. With the right accommodations most of us can learn and achieve amazing things. But like Dr. J. I don't want to drive over a bridge built by an engineer who never really mastered calculus.