Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

We should be concerned about our disability accommodations policy

The revised language of disability accommodations is worrying
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Shilpa Sweth
Daily Collegian (2023)

On Jan 24, 2024, Disability Services at the University of Massachusetts Amherst announced a significant change in the language regarding accommodations for students with disabilities. This adjustment, seemingly aimed at clarifying processes and expectations, is concerning. The alteration involves shifting from a previously more flexible approach to a stricter policy regarding disability-related absences and extensions, prompting discussions about its potential negative impact.

Previously, students registered with Disability Services at UMass were granted excused absences due to disability-related circumstances. This accommodation allowed students to miss classes and provided a pathway for them to catch up on missed material, including exams and course content. However, the revised policy outlines a more rigid framework, limiting the number of allowed absences and requiring prior communication with instructors.

This adjustment may appear to streamline the accommodation process and establish clearer guidelines. However, it becomes evident that this shift may inadvertently harm students with disabilities rather than support them.

One of the primary concerns with the new language is the requirement for students to communicate their absence to instructors before class. While this may seem reasonable in theory, it fails to consider the unpredictable nature of certain disabilities. Providing advance notice may be impractical or impossible for students experiencing health crises or sudden flare-ups of their condition. This requirement effectively penalizes students for circumstances beyond their control, adding unnecessary stress and barriers to accessing accommodations.

The limitation on the number of allowed absences per syllabus can disproportionately affect students with disabilities. Many courses have attendance policies in place, where grades are tied to class participation and presence. By imposing strict limits on absences, the University risks penalizing students who require more flexibility due to their disabilities, forcing them to attend class despite feeling unwell. Attending class while experiencing symptoms may worsen a student’s discomfort.

The new policy overlooks the diverse needs of students with disabilities, as not all disabilities are visible or easily accommodated. Conditions such as chronic pain, mental health disorders or autoimmune diseases can wax and wane and may require varying levels of accommodations, thus undermining the principles of inclusivity and accessibility.

In addition to concerns regarding disability-related absences, the shift in accommodation language at UMass also impacts assignment extensions. The previous language allowed students to request additional time to complete assignments, acknowledging that disabilities may necessitate flexibility in meeting deadlines. However, the updated policy limits extensions to one to three days. By restricting extensions to a narrow window, the University overlooks the needs of students, which exacerbates stress and anxiety.

The requirement for agreement from the instructor before the due date adds an additional layer of complexity. Instructors may not always readily grant extensions, especially in cases where students require last-minute accommodations due to unforeseen circumstances related to their disability. This bureaucratic hurdle could further delay access to necessary accommodations and undermine students’ ability to perform at their best.

Additionally, imposing a strict time limit for extensions may incentivize students to submit subpar work rather than risk missing the deadline altogether, undermining the goal of providing meaningful accommodations to support student success.

While it is understandable that the university may have implemented these changes in response to instances of abuse or misuse of accommodations, it is crucial to recognize that penalizing the entire student body for the actions of a few is inherently unjust. Rather than implementing blanket restrictions, a more constructive approach would involve addressing concerns of misuse on a case-by-case basis. If a professor or access coordinator suspects that a student is abusing accommodations, a dialogue should be initiated to better understand the student’s circumstances and explore alternative support mechanisms.

It is essential to recognize that disabilities are diverse and multifaceted, and what works for one student may not necessarily work for another. By imposing unforgiving restrictions on absences and assignment extensions, the University overlooks the individualized nature of disability accommodations and may inadvertently disadvantage students who require flexibility and support.

UMass needs to reevaluate its accommodation policies and strive for a more nuanced and inclusive approach. This involves listening to the concerns of students with disabilities, engaging in meaningful dialogue with faculty and staff, and adopting policies that prioritize flexibility, understanding, and support. By working collaboratively and proactively addressing concerns, UMass can uphold its commitment to equity and accessibility while ensuring the success and well-being of all members of its community.

Brigid Baleno can be reached at [email protected].

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