Most mornings I enjoy a cup of coffee while I peruse the headlines of two newspapers before tackling whatever work the day requires. Today, as we were passing the various newspaper sections between us, my husband pointed out Margaret Wente’s opinion piece in the Globe and Mail as something that might pique my interest. He was right.
Wente argues that we are coddling our university students. She argues that mental health initiatives, and many accommodations for people with identified disabilities are simply slanting the odds in favour of the less resilient, and less able. She seems fine with the idea of physical accommodations for physical disabilities, to a point, but accommodating intellectual disabilities simply means, as she sees it, students unfit for university are allowed to earn degrees they don’t actually deserve.
What Wente seems to completely lose sight of that those accommodations don’t water down the requirements of university work, they simply shift the work so that students can learn by employing their strengths. University learning, as a general rule, is highly structured and taught in a fairly linear, universal manner. Students who process written information rapidly, and who write fluently, do well. Students who process language and information at different speeds, or by using different avenues, often require accommodations. This doesn’t mean the students don’t do the work, they just might do the work differently. For example a student who struggles with reading might listen to a book. A student who has difficultly organizing information might employ a range of assistive strategies. Students who process information more slowly are allowed extensions for papers and exams.
Sadly, Wente seems very comfortable with the idea of a universal society where people fit into specific boxes and slots and go on to engage society accordingly. Those who can perform in a very specific, and very narrow, intellectual box get to attend post-secondary schooling and proceed to work in coveted jobs. Those who learn and process information differently should be excluded – their potential and contribution lost to society. Wente seems to lose sight of the fact that when society becomes more fluid in its understanding of contribution, talent, ability, and work, we are far more able to access the wisdom of our collective community. Just look at the level of innovation emerging from tech sector with its norm-busting, jeans wearing, rock-climbing, skateboard riding, all-hours keeping, work environments. The tech sector doesn’t encourage people to think outside the box. It threw the box out years ago having found it needlessly constraining. The idea that a work environment like the tech sector could look like a teen playground was anathema until recently. Surely such slack work expectations would yield poor results. Nope.
Wente also seems to lose sight of the fact that historically we have found all sorts of reasons to limit both access to opportunities and the potential of our fellow community members. She seems unaware of the idea that “normal” is a social construct that shifts as the years go by. We have found all sorts of valid, in our view, reasons to exclude people that seem different from the cultural majority – those we think of as normal. What accommodations teach us is that if we drop those arbitrary, and yes they are arbitrary, expectations of students to fit into some narrow definition of “normal” then a whole lot of students can do a whole lot of stuff we didn’t think they could do. And by extension these students go out in the world and do even more amazing stuff, not in spite of engaging the world differently but because they engage the world differently.
Most people know that I am a doctoral student who hopes to actually complete a PhD before I die. Some days I have sincere doubts that this a realistic goal. This PhD journey has been long and tortuous and has been assisted by many accommodations, and a whole lot of compassionate flexibility, over the years. Most notably, I have had professors willingly offer paper extensions. But recently I had a professor engage in some pretty creative accommodating to ensure I could complete my studies locally. All this support has meant that I can continue to study while managing the complex demands of my son’s care. It isn’t that I have fewer expectations, or that my work is lacking, it is simply that I am engaging the doctoral program at a different pace than other students. Without this flexibility, and that is what it is, flexibility not coddling, I am able to pursue my dream of engaging in caregiving research. But by Wente’s thinking I am simply a fragile student who is being coddled. That fact that my unique life experiences mean that I have something to say, and perhaps even something meaningful to offer to the conversation about disability and caregiving, is lost to her. By her thinking, the very idea that I cannot keep pace with students who do not care for a complex child ought to exclude me from the journey. But by excluding real-life caregivers in ongoing research about caregiving means that our conversations and study of the subject would never be ground in real-life. Something huge would be lost in the conversation and our best research would have gaps in knowledge. Accommodations mean that I get to be part of a conversation that would have been unavailable to me without that flexibility. And in return, perhaps I can add something meaningful to the dialogue.
It’s the same when we exclude students with disabilities. Sorry Ms. Wente. Despite what you suggest, giving a student with a limp a 20-yard head-start does not offer meaningless results at the end of 100-yards. What the race teaches all of us is that there are many ways to creatively get places, and that being the first to cross the finish line isn’t the only way to measure success. Accommodations allow people who engage the world differently than the majority to teach us that thinking and moving and learning outside the box can offer amazing insight and incredible results.
Similarly, Wente argues that things like dog therapy during exams is coddling students who should just suck it up and get through the tough days. As she points out, in her day they used much better coping strategies, you know, like pot and alcohol and jelly doughnuts. Yup. That’s right Wente. Drug use, or binge drinking, makes so much more sense than a healthy coping strategy like having stressed out students play with dogs for an hour during a lunch break.