I Only Wanted To Help, So I Gave Her A 'B'
"I ONLY WANTED TO HELP, SO I GAVE HER A 'B'"
When asked to make a presentation on this topic at a recent conference, it was the title that hooked me. While I am by no means as expert in anything related to the experience of disabled people, I have a great deal of experiences in worrying about and struggling with my reactions and behaviors toward disabled students in my classes.
How do I, as a college professor, provide disabled students with a fair opportunity to learn in my classes, making the appropriate "reasonable accommodations" and yet not treating them in a way that encourages and reinforces dependency? That is the essence of my struggle and perhaps can serve as a kind of "definition" of the problem.
It is a very subjective definition, as will be this examination of the problem. For it is based on what, in reflecting over the past few years, has been problematic in my own relationships with various disabled students that have been in my classes.
The title hooked me because I could hear myself saying it not so very long ago. As I reflect on my years of teaching, I see many situations where I used different standards of grading and evaluation for disabled and able-bodied students.
At first, my double standards were fairly blatant, but I had all sorts of "good" rationalizations to support them. For example: "They haven't been adequately prepared by the system, so I shouldn't expect them to perform at the same level." Or, "It takes them more time and effort to accomplish the same as other students, so I should adjust my evaluation accordingly."
Or better still, "They've worked so hard to get this far, I can't blow it for them now." I have come to realize that by using these rationalizations as justification for differential grading, I was continuing to foster dependency in disabled students. I was giving them a false picture of their abilities and successes and I was not giving them opportunities to grow by confrontation with critical feedback and honest challenges.
However, I was not yet ready to take the risk of allowing my disabled students their right to learn from honest criticism and even failure. After all, by not grading so hard, it was easier to see myself as a helping person. So my rationalizations became more subtle. "I'll evaluate them on the basis of how much improvement they exhibit from the beginning to the end of the course."
But this was just avoiding the issue and in the end was just as unequal, because I was not applying the same criteria to the other students.
Another thing I found myself doing was over-praising disabled students. If they did anything, I would tell them how well they did. This happened most frequently with good students. I was so pleased to see a disabled student perform well that I reinforced them as if they had done even better. But what such behavior revealed was my own prejudice relocated in the lower expectations which I had for my disabled students. And once again, I was giving them a false sense of their abilities.
With all of these excuses and rationalizations still tempting me, I think I've finally come to the realization that I cannot justify unequal standards for my able-bodied and disabled students. Whenever I do, I am facilitating the continued dependence of disabled students and making it even harder for them to deal with the real world.
Having said this, I don't mean to suggest that I have no responsibilities to disabled students beyond those I have to able-bodied students. I do indeed have many additional responsibilities and these, of course, vary extensively with the type and severity of the disability. It may mean, for example, that for people with certain visual and coordination problem, I may have to make my texts available several months in advance for taping.
And I, together with the student, will have to make arrangements for test taking, writing papers, etc. These kinds of "reasonable accommodations" do mean more work for the instructor. In fact, that may be one distinction between fair accommodation and differential grading. It doesn't take any effort on my part to simply give someone a better grade than they deserve. But it may take a lot of effort to make sure that every student has an equal opportunity to learn in my classes. At the same time I am responsible for making accommodations, however, I must be clear about the limits to my responsibility so that the student also takes significant responsibility for his/her own education and behavior. The dividing line between reasonable accommodation and differential treatment is certainly not always clear. But I must continually live in the tension of attempting to distinguish the two, if I am to be a fair and effective teacher to both able-bodied and disabled students.
It should also be said here that as I begin to expect disabled students to take responsibility for their own education, I may well encounter some who have never been expected to be responsible and who may get angry at me for what they perceive to be excessive demands. I ought to be prepared for this reaction, and deal with it creatively, helping the student learn from his/her own response to this situation.
Finally, there are times when my responsibility moves beyond the classroom to intervention within the institution itself. If I have disabled students who simply should not be in school, I owe it to them to be honest with them. I must give them an honest grade and help them explore alternatives rather than just pass them through.
At the same time I must also confront the admissions office or whoever is admitting students who can't cut it. And I must press for action in the public schools, so that disabled students get the skills they need much earlier. In short, I must become an advocate for change so that disabled students are treated honestly and fairly from the start.
While I believe that we cannot have a second set of standards for disabled students, I must make it clear that I am still continually struggling with the authenticity, fairness, and wisdom of my responses on this issue. And I believe that most faculty members are open to and anxious for guidance and training that can help them better respond to the needs of disabled students. I also believe that the main focus of any such training ought to be to help us look at ourselves - our fears, our prejudices, our discomfort, our need to be seen as helpers, and our guilt feelings. For until we face ourselves squarely and honestly, we will never be able to come to grips with our feelings about disability and our responses to disabled persons.