Elizabeth Mazur, Ph.D.

De-Stressing Disability

The Analogy of New Glasses

How to explain that accommodations are appropriate

Posted Mar 24, 2018

My student, Melissa, needs more than the allotted time for in-class exams.  However, like other undergraduates I have taught, she feels that she should not request accommodations. She hopes to take the MCAT for medical school entrance in a few years and so she feels that she needs to learn how to cope with timed tests.  However, as the semester progresses, this type of learning does not appear to be occurring; for each subsequent 50-minute exam, she takes ever more time to complete the test, either finishing the exam in my office or in a colleague’s when I need to run to a scheduled meeting. 

Melissa is especially concerned that medical schools should not know about her need for accommodations.  Besides the argument that who might better understand patients with disability than a physician who also is challenged with one, according to the website of the Association of American Colleges, MCAT scores are not reported with any information about whether the test taker took the exam with “nonstandard administration.” 

In our discussion, I also pulled out the eyeglasses analogy, which I have borrowed from a pediatrician and have often found to be useful for arguing for the acceptability of taking medications for ADHD.  Basically, as many in the ADHD community are aware, the metaphor is that stimulant medication acts like “eyeglasses for the brain”.  This comparison appears to makes an impact to students every time - at least initially - before they start to explain why their situation is different.  And the eyeglasses metaphor did seem to impress Melissa. She is now planning to request accommodations for test taking, although first she needs to obtain the required neuropsychological testing for anything formal such as the MCAT.

But the perceptions of students, especially with invisible disabilities, that they should not need accommodations, are not the only barriers. A new 2018 journal article in Rehabilitation Psychology suggests that peer perceptions may have a direct impact on the social environment of students with disabilities.  Alexandra Deckoff-Jones and Mary Duell of University of Massachusetts Lowell found that learning disabilities and psychiatric disabilities are more stigmatized and viewed as less deserving of academic accommodation than visible and invisible physical disabilities.  As the authors indicate, students with disabilities are required by universities to self-advocate in order to succeed in college. If they have their need for accommodations questioned by peers or faculty, they face the stigma of having their disability equated with lack of competence.  This is what Melissa is afraid of.  Therefore, students with disabilities who need accommodations often try to “pass,” to get by without them, thus, decreasing their chances of successfully graduating.

Conrad von Soest/Wikimedia, public domain.
Source: Conrad von Soest/Wikimedia, public domain.

So maybe the question should be, “Who actually needs the new glasses?”  I would suggest that it is the educational system.  Universities should implement programs that better help students with disabilities feel accepted and not stigmatized.  Disability needs to be normalized, and exam accommodations, tutoring, and classes about time management and study skills open to any student who thinks they might benefit.  Students, staff, and faculty need to learn about the existence of invisible disabilities so as to better understand that a disability need not be visible to warrant accommodation.  Alas, getting accustomed to new glasses, especially those that are progressive, is not always easy.

References

Deckoff-Jones, A., & Duell, M. N. (2018).  Perceptions of appropriateness of accommodations for university students: Does disability type matter?  Rehabilitation Psychology, 63, 68-76.

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