By Katherine Macfarlane • January 10, 2019•Writers in Residence, Law School, Other Law School Issues, Issues, Sexism, Sexual Harassment, and Other Forms of Discrimination
Late last year, a University of Michigan Law student sent an email about testing accommodations to a public listserv. The subject: “People using ‘extra’ time.” In the email’s body, the student wrote: “I see you messing up the curve for me thanks.”
Michigan Law’s Assistant Dean for Student Life issued a compassionate response affirming the law school’s commitment to diversity and its disabled students. Above the Law condemned the student’s complaints in a late-December column.
Still, the idea that testing accommodations are a gift which might unfairly ruin another student’s grades persists.
I want to debunk this myth. Accommodations are a time suck.
But first things first. If a student’s exams are administered in a way that deviates from the norm, this doesn’t always mean they receive additional testing time. Maybe the student needs breaks during the exam to pump breastmilk in a far-away lactation room. Maybe the student has experienced a personal crisis and needs breaks to cope with unpredictable panic attacks. Maybe the student has chronic pain and needs to stand up and stretch every hour. These examples don’t add “extra time” to the exam. They allow for breaks that stop the clock.
Let’s change the facts. Assume that most students receive four hours to complete an exam, but one of their classmates receives six hours as a result of disability accommodations. The horror!
Is the accommodated student getting something extra?
A law school classmate told me I was “lucky” to have a disabled parking placard because it ensured that I always had a convenient parking spot. But there was nothing lucky about my circumstances. I have a permanent disability so severe that walking from a distant parking spot to a classroom was painful and difficult.
There’s also nothing lucky about having a disability that requires testing accommodations. Obtaining an accommodation is itself an exhausting and time-consuming process.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at what Michigan Law asks disabled students to do before they can receive a testing accommodation. There’s nothing particularly troublesome or unique about the Michigan Law process. I highlight it only to show that obtaining an accommodation takes time that other students don’t often consider.
The University of Michigan’s Office of Student Life coordinates its accommodations process. Law students must request accommodations six weeks before an exam date. But first, they need to provide “diagnostic documentation” of their disability. If a student’s disability is a “Chronic Health Condition,” the diagnostic documentation is a five-page verification form.
I have a chronic health condition, and just looking at this form stresses me out.
The form explains that the doctor who verifies the student’s disability must have “first-hand knowledge of the student's condition . . . qualifications and experience diagnosing the student’s condition, and . . . be an impartial professional who is not related to the student.”
I’m going to move away from Michigan for a moment and situate our disabled student in a rural law school. Finding a doctor with “qualifications and experience” to diagnose a chronic illness might require traveling to the nearest big city, which could be hours away. Even if a specialist is found, a first-time appointment could be hard to come by before the documentation is due.
Even if we move our law student back to Ann Arbor, many details must fall into place for a student to be able to submit an accommodations request six weeks in advance of an exam.
To avoid multiple appointments related to the verification form, a doctor must be willing to verify the student’s disability during the student’s first appointment. If the doctor refuses or doesn’t have enough information to fill out the form, the student will need to return for a second or third appointment.
The University of Michigan verification form asks the verifying doctor to document both the “[d]ate of initial contact with student” and the “[d]ate of last contact with student,” suggesting that the doctor must see the student more than once.
Even if the doctor is willing to verify the student’s disability during a first-time appointment, that appointment will not be short.
The verifying doctor must describe the student’s diagnosis, the date of the diagnosis, and:
- “Basis on which diagnosis was made”;
- The law student’s “[c]urrent medications including dosage and side effects”;
- “Other therapeutic interventions”;
- “Current compliance with medication plan and/or therapeutic intervention”;
- “Long term medication and treatment plan”;
- “Prognosis for medication plan and/or therapeutic intervention” (with respect to this documentation, doctors are asked to “[i]nclude likelihood of improvement or further deterioration and within what approximate time frame”);
- “History of hospitalization”;
- “Implications for educational success,” that is, “[l]earning abilities specific to the post-secondary environment that are impaired by the disability (e.g. difficulty with concentration, slow processing speed, etc.)”; and
- "Implications for taking exams and other classroom activities . . . [e]ither caused by the disorder or medications.”
Finally, the doctor must “recommend accommodations and include a detailed explanation of the relevance to the disability for each.”
Let’s start tracking our time. Finding a doctor who treats a specific disability might take 1-2 hours, including the time spent calling around to find out who is accepting new patients. A first-time appointment might take 1-2 hours. Add in travel time and we’re reasonably up to 3 hours for the first visit. If a second-time appointment is required, add on another two hours for the visit itself and travel time.
Remember, doctors don’t keep law school library hours. A disabled student will be squeezing in accommodations-related visits during the work week—maybe even when classes are held. Let’s add in the hours a disabled student will devote to making up the time lost by missing class.
There are other hurdles built into this process. Doctors don’t go to law school. What kind of doctor will know how to suggest specific testing accommodations? And how would a first-year law student who has never taken an exam know what kind of testing accommodation to request?
Figuring out what accommodations to ask for will take additional time.
Once a student obtains verification documentation, the student must “[c]all or email [a] disability coordinator to set up a face-to-face appointment.” The disability coordinator meeting will eat up more time and may require missing class (the office that handles accommodations is open from 8 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.).
Imagine completing the tasks I’ve just outlined. Then, imagine completing each one six weeks before an exam is scheduled, during your first semester of law school, soon after moving to a new city or state.
Even if a disabled student receives additional time to complete an exam, it’s likely that this student had less time to study, outline, and even relax. Additional time may level the playing field during the exam itself. In my experience, accommodations help a little, but not a lot.
I started my stint as a Ms. JD Writer-in-Residence with a post about testing accommodations. I shared how I struggled to admit that I needed them, even though I’d lived with a vicious autoimmune disease that affects my hands, wrists, neck, elbows and knees for most of my life. I described the intense shame I felt when classmates noticed that I wasn’t in their exam room. And how I feared that my good grades would be attributed to my accommodations.
Are accommodations worth the effort? It’s hard to say. But they certainly aren’t screwing up your curve.