The Debate Over Accommodations: Making Space for Mental Health in the Classroom — Sarah Forbes

Equality doesnt mean EquityMost professors are aware of their responsibility to accommodate students with disabilities in their classroom.  Many of them may not be as aware that this responsibility extends to students with a documented mental health condition as well. While mental health issues are often invisible, they create many difficulties for students in academia. By allowing reasonable accommodations, instructors can encourage these students to reach their full potential.

What do these accommodations look like?

Accommodations can take many forms. For students with difficulty focusing in crowded environments due to issues like ADHD, alternative exam locations allow them to write their exams in smaller rooms. Often other resources are used alongside alternative exams such as peer note-takers, where a student will take lecture notes on behalf of someone who may not be able to multi-task or focus as well. For students with depression or anxiety who may have difficulties with motivation, short negotiated extensions on assignments may help them to manage their time. Other changes in assignment structure can be negotiated with specific students as well, such as changing a public speaking presentation to a prerecorded lecture for a student with social anxiety. In any of these cases, accommodations require the student to document their issue with AccessAbility Services. For extensions and other personalized changes in exam or assignment structure, the student and instructor can collaborate to find a solution that fits both the assessment needs of the instructor and the issues faced by the student.

cartoon accommodationsThere is some controversy over the idea of accommodations that change assignment structure or allow extra time. However, as illustrated by the cartoon accompanying this article, expecting all students to achieve the same results based on their different abilities and starting points in life is unrealistic. Accommodations given to students who need them simply gives them the chance to truly show the work they have put into the class and the knowledge they have gained.

 The debate over content warnings

The most controversial accommodation by far appears to be the “trigger warning” or “content warning.”  The idea is exactly the same under either name. For controversial or difficult topics that must be discussed in class, the instructor will present a short warning prior to the introduction of the topic. This allows students for whom this topic may be upsetting or trigger flashbacks/anxiety attacks to choose how they interact with the subject matter. This is especially important in the arts, where controversial discussions are the backbone of many classes. While discussions about rape culture and sexual assault on campus are important and help to eliminate stigma as well as introduce students to new viewpoints, they can send a student who has survived sexual assault into a debilitating panic attack, forcing them out of the conversation. Many professors view these warnings as an escape route from difficult conversations and assignments. Anyone can claim to be “triggered,” they argue, and then skip out on important lecture material and assignments with no penalty. However, the content warning does not mean that the material is not mandatory – it just allows students to be prepared for the discussion. If a student knows that they will not be able to handle the material, they can then approach the professor privately and negotiate any other accommodations necessary.

These warnings are easy to add to a syllabus. They can be placed in the class schedule, next to lectures in which topics such as sexual assault, eating disorders, violence, and any other potentially graphic or disturbing topic are discussed. The discussion culture of university is incredibly important for allowing students to experience many different ideas and viewpoints – but by including upsetting subjects without any warning it can alienate many students with mental illnesses, leaving them out of a discussion that often focuses on them. The voices we most need to hear when talking about some of these issues are from students who have personally experienced them. To encourage them to speak up, we need to keep our classrooms welcoming.

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Sarah Forbes

Sarah Forbes is an undergraduate in the Psychology department at the University of Waterloo and a co-op student at the Centre for Teaching Excellence.

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