On April 19, Philip Gaines posted a letter from a concerned student to the column ‘Social Qs’ at the NYTimes:

I am a student at a small liberal arts college. My friend takes a required psychology class with me. But she has acute autism, so when we take exams, she goes into another room, by herself, to take them. She recently told me that when she takes these tests, she uses her notes to do better. This hardly seems fair to everyone who actually studied. I also don’t understand how this situation is supposed to help her issues. Should I tell the professor?


Gaines replied that it didn’t seem that the friend was cheating, and that the writer should talk to her friend as a friend about what was going on.

But that missed the point(s) entirely.

First – nothing is going on. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that colleges and universities that receive federal money cannot discriminate against students with disabilities. Title II of the act says that:

No qualified individual with a disability shall, on the basis of disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any public entity.

The law requires that colleges and universities (as well as many other entities) “make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures,” to ensure that individuals with disabilities are not discriminated against. That’s what we’ve come to know on college campuses as accommodations – changes to “policies, practices, or procedures” both in and out of the classroom to ensure that individuals with disabilities have access to the same quality education as people who aren’t disabled.

For someone to qualify for accommodations, their disability has to be documented. This means turning in testing or medical information to the office of disability services (called by different names on different campuses) where someone (hopefully an expert) decides which accommodations a student should receive. That decision is communicated out to faculty and staff and it is the law that they follow that directive. This means Anonymous’ friend didn’t just up and decide to go to a quiet room and take their notes with them – those are the terms of the accommodations that the friend has been judged legally entitled to under the ADA.

It’s not a matter of manners or friendship, it’s a matter of law.

But behind Anonymous’ words lurks an even more insidious idea – the idea that if someone cannot do what many other people do (take an exam, without notes, in an environment that may be noisy or distracting, for example) they’re gaming the system; getting away with something that they shouldn’t get away with. The implicit assumption in Anonymous’ letter is that there’s a right way to do college, and it’s the way they do college.

But that’s simply not the case.

The way that many (even most) people do college is predicated upon physical and mental ability – the liberty to move around easily, to have a reasonable supply of energy each day, to be free from lasting pain, to be able to easily organize one’s thoughts, to moderate sensory input, to distinguish between real threats to the self and threats that seem real because of psychological conditioning, for example. But that is not the case for everyone, and to think that it is marginalizes people who need assistive devices, or experience serious medical side-effects, or who are autistic, or have PTSD (to name a handful of the many, many reasons someone might qualify for accommodations).

Presuming that what’s good for people without disabilities is also good for people with them is a weighted assumption that creates an unjust system. People with disabilities are no less smart, creative, thoughtful, gifted, analytical, or talented than anyone else – but insisting that they communicate, act, move, and think as if they are not disabled impedes them in their college life, and relegates them to a second-class position on campus.* Many people know this – many people would agree that having ramps to get into campus buildings is a fair accommodation for someone who is in a wheelchair, for example. But when it comes to other accommodations, people lose the clarity they might have about ramps, and become suspicious that someone has an unfair advantage. That’s not the case, but it’s sometimes a tough proposition to get individuals without disabilities to see it.

To give a concrete example: some students have cognitive disabilities that mean when they look at a page of text, they are quickly overwhelmed a crowded jumble of words. A simple

a piece of plastic with a window placed over a page of text
A reading tool

device – a piece of plastic with a window – can help those students isolate one line of text at a time and process the page of reading in a way they couldn’t before. It’s not an advantage for students to have that device; it’s an advantage for someone to not see a crowded jumble when they look at the page. The assistive device levels the playing field, much like a quiet room and notes do for Anonymous’ friend.

Gaines should have told Anonymous that accommodations are the law, but he should also have pointed out that Anonymous’ presumptions about what’s just on campus were unjust. Anonymous likely has the privilege of not needing a quiet room or their notes to do well on an exam if they’ve studied. Anonymous’ friend needs something different, and that difference speaks to a more complex world than Anonymous seems to have considered.


*Full disclosure: I am someone who has ADA accommodations at my place of work.

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