“It wouldn’t be fair.”

Well, it’s that time of year again when I sign up for another class. Being that I’m taking this class at a different college, I have to once again go through the process of filing paperwork with the office that provides access services for students with disabilities. (I’ve long since learned to scan the diagnostic documents into pdf files so I can hand out copies, rather than risk losing or damaging the originals.)

Going through this process leaves me with mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m relieved that someone takes seriously my persistent difficulties with some processes. I’m glad to finally get the accommodations I need. On the other hand, this whole process of getting accommodations, and indeed the system of special education, is a tacit acknowledgement that the current educational system simply doesn’t work well enough for large numbers of students.

The absurd part is that I really don’t need anything extraordinary in the way of accommodations. The things I need aren’t expensive, nor do they require the instructors to do anything radically different in their instruction methods.

My accommodations are to give me “preferential seating” (I sit up front to better see and hear the professor and the board they are writing/projection upon); to have the captions displayed when videos are shown so I can understand all the narration (the students with hearing impairments or who do not have English as their primary language also benefit from the captions); to get copies of lecture notes or PowerPoints so I can be sure of understanding and not missing any of the material being presented, and to have 50% extra time to take tests.

What these do is to allow me to do is to acquire the information being presented, and to demonstrate my mastery of the subject material, at levels on par with my peers. These don’t give me a superior advantage over the other students, but rather help bring me up to the same level. (If many of the other students find they would also very much benefit from these things, then the instructional and evaluation methods need re-assessing – there’s a difference between challenging students and making things hard on them.)

Much of the resistance I have gotten from instructors has been on the issue of “fairness”.

I have failed – flunked – big red “F” on the page – more math tests than I care to remember. Suddenly I am getting A’s in College Algebra and Calculus! So, I am not innumerate. But what the hell happened? I got much better teachers who were able to teach with a variety of methods geared for different learning styles, and they let me take the time I need to finish the tests.

Then I get to a graduate-level statistics course, and talk to the professor at the beginning of the semester, explaining my particular difficulties with transcription errors and such, and ask if I might be able to have extra time if necessary so I can finish my exams. He refuses. He feels that would be “unfair” to the other students. “Everyone gets test anxiety; you will get faster with practice,” he says.

I sigh heavily at this familiar refrain, and throw myself into the subject. Like calculus, statistics lives in a theory world of its own, but I find that I understand the concepts. I read the textbook. I take excellent notes in class (people like to borrow my notes when they miss lectures). I do all the homework. I join a study-group. I do the programming projects and get A’s on them.

Then I get D’s on the first two tests. (Oh no, not again!) I go back and explain my problems once again to my professor – I did not even have time to finish one of the tests! I ask him again for extra time, which he refuses. Finally in high frustration, I end up discussing the situation with my grad school advisor, who pushes through a class Drop (even after the official last-drop date; amazingly, it can be done). I retake the class the next semester, this time with my official paperwork filed so I can have half as much more time to take the tests, and therefore will be able to finish them and be able to double-check my calculations for transpositions and such. I get a perfectly acceptable B grade. I just wanted to be tested on my understanding of the material, not my computational speed!

“It wouldn’t be fair,” said the professor. He missed the point.

Ann Welch* makes some excellent distinctions about the different concepts that are lumped together under sometimes misleading heading of “fairness”.
Equality is about treating everyone the same way because people have the same rights.
Equity is about recognizing and responding according to the amount of effort given by or achievement of a student. Equity can be best determined when everyone has the same equal opportunity.
The third of course is need. Not everyone needs the same things. (After all, no one complains that it’s “unfair” that I get to use bifocals when the rest of the students don’t.)

Highly competitive cultures place great value on equity; you get what you deserve. (The corollary being that you deserve what you get, and if taken to extremes, that if you’re somehow “substandard” you must have deserved it. It’s the old sin model of disability.)

It’s not that people aren’t terribly concerned with fairness. Indeed, children are almost obsessed with fairness, watching every last gram of sweets being doled out, or time and opportunity with entertainments being shared. That sort of fairness is about equality.

Fairness is not just about treating everyone the same; it’s also about giving people what they need.

* Ann B. Welch. 2000. “Responding to Student Concerns about Fairness.”  Teaching Exceptional Children, 33, (2) 36-40