Are Academic Accommodations Unfair?

The short answer to the question "do accommodations give students an unfair advantage" is: No.

The longer answer is one that I thought is worth addressing.

As we prepare for another school year, the question how to best support students who have mental health issues is once again on top of mind. In a recent  and much discussed article by Queen's University Law Professor, Bruce Pardy, the author argues that providing exam accommodations to students with mental health issues provides an unfair advantage. 

In the article, Pardy compares the World Track and Field Championships with University exams claiming that:

 " Extra time for mental disabilities is as unfair to other students as a head start would be to other runners."

Is that a fair comparison? Is it actually unfair to students who do not have a mental disability for accommodation?

There are a few problems that I have with the article:

1. There is a false equivalence between a top athletic competition and academia. He argues that when a professor awards a student an A vs. a B, she  discriminates between students on the basis of their cognitive skills and mental abilities: how well they can think, learn, analyze, remember, communicate, plan, prepare, organize, focus and perform under pressure. He argues that "Given enough time, many students could put together a paper that would earn a 90".

This makes the assumption that academic accommodations give students an advantage over others. The difference however is that students with a mental illness are not asking for a head start in a race, mental illness or a disability have students starting behind the starting blocks. The purpose of accommodations is not to give students an edge over other students, but to bring them forward to the starting line like everyone else.  

People with anxiety may have accommodations such as supervised breaks during exams. For people with mental fatigue based disabilities a school may be able to arrange for an exam to be "chunked up", which reduces the effects of fatigue and allows the student to focus on one section at a time.

Surely these accommodations are not making it unfair for all, but rather they level the playing field.

2. Mr. Pardy seems to indicate that there is an abuse of students that are claiming mental health disabilities. 

"Typically, only a medical note is required to get accommodation, even though many clinicians rely on self-reported symptoms to measure impairment. At some universities, students not need even disclose the nature of the condition they claim to suffer."

This runs counter to University of Toronto's Accessibility Services website. Generally, you will need to to provide a detailed letter from a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker or family doctor who is familiar with your needs. The letter must be based on a recent evaluation. It will include such things as:

  • Relevant medical history.
  • How your condition might affect your academic performance.
  • Current medication and how that medication might affect your academic performance.
  • Specific accommodations required as a result. The key here is what accommodations are necessary. You are only entitled to those that are necessary.

Of course, accommodations shouldn't be given out blindly - they need to be individualized and based on specific needs. But the point is, accommodations are more fair than unfair - they help give students access to equal (and thus fair) standards of education so they can better meet their potential.

This ideas in this article are not uncommon due to misconceptions and stigma related to mental health concerns. There is a perception that accommodations are making it easier or giving people an unfair advantage. At the end of the day, we all have the right to access opportunities to learn and should be able to thrive in environments that support our individual needs.

What do you think about this debate? Have you or someone you know accessed any academic accommodations? How might this translate into the workforce upon graduation?