Why I Dread the Accommodations Talk

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

March 26, 2017

T he student, let’s call her "Lee," arrived at my office at the appointed time, took the chair I indicated, pulled a form from her backpack, and shot me a look. Not confrontational, but not exactly friendly, either — a demeanor underscored by the old black motorcycle jacket and punk haircut she sported. She was in a large lecture course I was teaching, and had asked to see me in this first week of term. As soon as I glimpsed the form, I knew she was here to tell me which accommodations the accessibility office had deemed her eligible to receive.

Like many faculty members, I dread such moments — not because I don’t want my classes to be accessible to every kind of student. I emphatically do. I am a professor of psychology, have taught and written about mental health for 40 years, and am an outspoken ally of many disability-rights activists and groups. Fostering greater openness about people’s mental-health needs lies at the core of all my work.

The reason I dread such encounters is that they have become formulaic and often defensive — distant from the actual needs and talents of the student thrusting the form at me.

Lee leaned forward, but averted her gaze. "I get panic attacks," she reported in a flat tone. "You said you don’t give make-up exams in this course. What if I get an attack on the day of one of the tests? The letter says I can get extended deadlines when I need them."

The course in question is required of every psychology major, and is at the core of my department’s curriculum. There were exams, lab reports, presentations, and papers, in a tightly choreographed sequence that barely fit into the term. Falling behind in one assignment could cause cascading problems and leave a student at risk for failure in advanced work in the department.

Our challenge as faculty members is to respond in ways that support our students' fundamental educational goals, find ways to help them when they need it, and encourage thoughtful coping skills and resilience.
I relaxed into my chair, and looked directly at Lee. "Well, I hope that doesn’t happen," I said evenly. "This course has a very fast pace, each assignment builds on the ones prior, and you’d be at a significant disadvantage if you missed a test. You’re a psych major, and this is our most important course. I know you want to do well in it. Let’s talk about how to make sure that happens."

I set the letter aside and asked: "What do you usually do to calm down before an exam?"

She mumbled a few things, and we talked a bit longer, but little concrete guidance emerged.

The term moved along, and I saw her each week in the back row of the lecture hall, but she never again came to my office. The TA of her lab section said Lee never missed a deadline and was doing well. I didn’t give her specific advice, nor did I ignore the reality of her problems. Instead, I conveyed confidence in her capacity to succeed and to come up with strategies to manage her difficulties. I have no idea if she still suffers panic attacks, but she didn’t miss any deadlines and got a high grade in my course.

My point in telling this story?

Students certainly have needs, but those often have little to do with what’s on their accommodation forms. Our challenge as faculty members is to respond in ways that: (1) support our students’ fundamental educational goals, (2) find ways to help them when they need it, and (3) encourage thoughtful coping skills and resilience so that, when it’s possible, they can learn to manage on their own.

Lee’s situation illustrates one key way that mental-health problems differ from many physical disabilities. Student who are deaf, visually impaired, or in a wheelchair have a specific and permanent need for a particular accommodation — their right to insist that this need be met is one of the major contributions the Americans With Disabilities Act has made to our society.

I completely support the inclusion of psychiatric conditions among those being handled by campus accommodations offices. But overly broad and vague criteria for what constitutes a student’s problem serve no one.

Compared with physical disabilities, psychiatric conditions are far more variable — both for different people with the same diagnosis and even for the same person at different times or in different contexts. People aren’t equally anxious, depressed, dissociated, subject to panic attacks, or even learning disabled all the time, or necessarily in all the same ways. It depends on what they are being asked to do, how prepared they are to do it, and what state of mind they are currently experiencing.

We as faculty members need to respond appropriately and help students to learn what’s a crisis (and what’s not), and to understand when it is reasonable to ask for the course structure to be changed or for expectations to be modified (and when it’s best to try to cope on one’s own).

Those are crucial life lessons of adulthood, and we aren’t helping students who already have problems to succeed in their lives after college by treating them in a standardized manner or by overprotecting them. Determining who actually requires assistance, and in what form, and discouraging students from defining themselves by what they can’t do can be especially important.

People have the right to behave oddly, whether or not they have a diagnosis or an accommodation form. I once had a student who did not look directly at me or any other member of that 15-person seminar for the entire semester. I’ve had students who made strange head movements in class because they were hearing voices. It’s not our job to make them conform to some stereotypical role — so long as their actions are not disruptive and they are respectful of the educational process.

But if a student’s behavior does cause problems for others in a class, we should consider it our responsibility to intervene.

A few years ago, a student in one of my large required courses wrote things on a blackboard during her weekly lab session that alarmed her classmates. The TA who taught the lab emailed me that evening, recounting the details and expressing concern that the student might present a risk to others. Although studying mental health has certainly broadened my boundaries for what constitutes "appropriate behavior," this seemed very worrisome, and for the first time in 35 years of teaching, I called the college switchboard and asked to speak to the dean on call. A "well-being" check was made and the student was found to be studying in her room; she seemed OK in a brief conversation with the hall resident. Because I happen to know the director of the counseling center, I called the next day to make certain she was aware of the situation. No one panicked, but at the same time, the student did not fall through the cracks and help was available if necessary.

People don’t just suddenly fall apart out of nowhere, and while current attitudes on campuses make students seem fragile, they can often cope better than they’re given credit for. Even those who’ve experienced serious trauma or been hospitalized for their psychiatric problems can still be surprisingly resilient. For some people, school is a refuge, a conflict-free zone where they can relax and be successful. (I know; I was one of them.)

We want to prepare students for life in the world of adult work. But we also want to encourage them to help make that world more humane and inclusive than it traditionally has been. People have to learn to manage chronic problems and conditions, and to cope with the crises — be they physical or emotional — that can affect any of us at certain moments.

The most important thing I’ve learned from 40 years of studying mental health is that human resourcefulness and supportive connections with others can enable people to rise to surprising challenges. It’s practically impossible to predict in advance who’s going to thrive in a given situation and who’s not. So I try to create the kind of support structures that will foster success even with otherwise poor odds.

On the first day of class, I always tell my students that assignments turned in late will be graded down or not accepted, unless there is a serious, unexpected circumstance. I explain that "serious" can include coming down with the flu or experiencing the death of a close relative — but, equally, it can also mean staying up all night with a suicidal friend or having an exam the morning after a distressing break-up.

That policy is no more likely to be abused for a psychological problem than for a physical one. Students quickly learn that, just as a headache or a cold are not "serious" circumstances, neither are being anxious about the assignment or having a minor conflict with a roommate. Understanding such distinctions is helpful far beyond the context of any one course, since there are very few markers to guide decisions about mental health in our culture.

A greater percentage of students arrive at college these days with a history of emotional problems, and even more will be diagnosed during the years we spend with them on campus. Of course we must take their individual needs into account and make sensible accommodations when warranted. But it’s also our responsibility as faculty members to uphold educational standards, to ensure fairness, and to model resourcefulness for all students, no matter their background or life challenges.

Lee’s accommodation letter did serve one key function: It gave her permission to meet with me and to reveal, if she so chose, potentially embarrassing private information that she would not otherwise have told a professor.

And it gave me a chance to model an attitude of nonjudgmental assessment of the circumstances, and to encourage self-reliance, coping skills, and confidence in a student’s strengths and talents.

Gail A. Hornstein is a professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College.