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Deciding how to accommodate a student’s disability isn’t easy

Experts at an international summit advise more prudence in bestowing accommodations.


The mother of a student at Queen’s University in Kingston wanted her daughter labelled disabled and given special accommodations because she had to study “real hard” to get A’s. In two other cases, parents asked Queen’s to be allowed to live in residence for one year with their newly enrolled children, fearing the new students were unable to cope without mom or dad beside them.

Allyson Harrison did not accommodate those parents’ requests. Dr. Harrison is a disabilities expert serving as clinical director of the Regional Assessment and Resource Centre at Queen’s. She has a long list of anecdotes about students being labelled disabled, beginning in public school, and given accommodations that at times are unnecessary, such as double time to write exams. These students then come to university feeling “entitled” to similar treatment and eventually graduate without all the skills needed to compete in the workplace.

“The definition of disability is a moving target,” Dr. Harrison told the International Summit on Accessibility held July 12-15 in Ottawa. “Boundaries on definitions seem to be widening.”

The summit of more than 400 disability experts, mainly from Canada and the United States, was organized by Carleton University, a widely recognized leader in helping students with disabilities, with assistance from the province of Ontario and the city of Ottawa. Among the topics discussed were technological breakthroughs and design innovations for buildings to help the disabled, employment strategies for the disabled, and the unique challenges of helping those with psychiatric disabilities. The summit drew some high-profile advocates for the disabled, including David Onley, Ontario’s outgoing lieutenant-governor, and Canada’s “man in motion” Rick Hansen.

Two decades ago, participants from the university community might have spent considerable time at such a summit pushing for broader definitions of the disabled and for more accommodations for them. But at the Ottawa summit, “the conversation has changed,” some panelists said, citing a need for more prudence in bestowing accommodations.

That was certainly the message of Manju Banerjee, vice-president and director of the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training in Putney, Vermont. The institute has a particular focus on students with learning disabilities.

Dr. Banerjee believes some students labelled disabled do not always need to be assigned classroom note-takers or given extra time to complete assignments; they simply have not been taught properly how to take notes or to how to develop good study habits. The students say they need the accommodations yet, upon questioning, admit that more study and more sleep before an exam are more crucial for a good mark than are accommodations.

“Often, what students ask for in accommodations is a safety net,” said Dr. Banerjee.

Carleton’s Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities deals with 2,000 students with disabilities. Larry McCloskey, the centre’s director, said that represents eight percent of the 25,000 students campus but, as he pointed out, that is still a smaller share than the 12 to 15 percent of the general population who have a disability.

Dr. McCloskey and his colleagues have put into practice some of the strategies recommended by Dr. Banerjee. Some students, said Dr. McCloskey, begin university feeling they need or are “entitled” to accommodations. In fact, some just need to be taught “time management and learning strategies.”

Disabled students accustomed to accommodations at educational institutions may be in for a shock when they join the workforce, said some presenters. Mark Wafer owns some Tim Hortons restaurants in the Toronto area and makes an effort to hire employees with disabilities, largely because he finds them more reliable than other workers. But, he told the summit, sometimes a new worker feels he or she does not have to arrive on time for work because teachers, making allowances for a disability, did not enforce strict hours for that student in the classroom. Once Mr. Wafer lays down the law on punctuality, the problem tends to disappear.

In an interview, Dr. Harrison from Queen’s raised a similar example regarding law students given extra time to complete assignments or exams because of a disability. What happens when that lawyer enters the bill-by-the hour work environment? Will that lawyer feel entitled to bill clients more because it takes him or her longer to process information?

“I think we need to move away from trying to just make sure everyone succeeds [in university] and that everyone feels happy,” she said. Instead, universities should be telling students, “Let’s give you some sustainable skills that will allow you to get a job and be happy, rather than unrealistically telling you things you can’t do,” said Dr. Harrison.

“It’s like my nephew who thought he could swim because he had water wings on and then he jumped into the pool without them and, as he’s going down to the bottom, he has no idea what happened.”

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  1. Mackenzie / July 23, 2014 at 13:02

    Being a student with a disability, giving accommodations to people who do not need them makes things worse for the students who do need accommodations. There is a prevailing attitude held by many university instructors that students with disabilities should not be accommodated because it would give them an unfair advantage over non-disabled students. This attitude is especially stigmatizing to some groups because of how instructors view disability. Physical disabilities are more likely to be accommodated to without question while invisible disabilities, such as learning disabilities and mental health issues are viewed with suspicions and seen as people trying to take advantage of the system when that is the furthest thing from the truth. This is probably due to the fact that the instructor can see that a student with a physical disability has an issue and can understand. I remember in Grade 3 learning about disability and respect. Wheelchairs were brought into the classroom and for each period several students had to do their work in wheelchairs. The goal of the exercise was to see what it was like for disabled people to be in a classroom but how can you simulate how another person thinks or processes information? There needs to be more education for educators at all levels, parents, and students about what constitutes disability so that the issue of people getting accommodations who do not need them can be curbed and the stigma of those with invisible disabilities can be reduced and hopefully eliminated.

  2. Rudy / July 25, 2014 at 16:49

    I am an instructor and I have never had an issue with granting legitimate accommodation. One recent incident, however, has made me start to question my all-encompassing policy. A student who had accommodation for extra time for an exam complained bitterly when she found out that final exam would have no set time limit for its completion. It became clear to me that some students use granted accommodation only to secure an advantage over their colleagues. As a student and now as an instructor, I have always been challenged by dyslexia, vision impairment and anxiety disorders and have never once sought accommodation. Perhaps it is more my generation but I much prefer to meet the challenges — the successes are so much sweeter.

  3. Joe / July 29, 2014 at 17:45

    “Often, what students ask for in accommodations is a safety net,” said Dr. Banerjee.

    I’ve seen exactly this happen first hand: in some instances where students have extra time accommodations but finish their exams early (for whatever reason) I find that they kind of sit there for a while – not reviewing their work – waiting for their time to run out. Doing this means that in my logs it looks like the student used up all their time which justifies their accommodations yet in reality that extra time wasn’t at all needed (at least for that particular exam, I couldn’t speak of other courses where it may legitimately be needed.)

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