Sunday, October 24, 2010

Harvard learns to accommodate students with disabilities

The intro to a story in the Harvard Crimson:

The deadline had come and gone, and Michael’s final expository writing paper remained unfinished. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t bring a sense of organization to his sentences and paragraphs. The preceptor recommended that he turn in whatever he had or face a failing grade on the paper.

“My teacher literally sent me an e-mail saying you should turn in your paper right now so you can pass the class,” says Michael, who requested his real name not be used for this article.

Instead Michael ignored the warning and took another two days to work on the paper. But the preceptor’s warning stood, and he had to retake Expos.

Now a junior, Michael has become an English concentrator who consistently gets A’s on his papers.

“Asperger’s people just process the world a little differently,” Michael says, referring to his neurological disorder. “It never occurred to me that I could possibly fail that.”

Knowledge does not come a priori. It must be consumed and built up—a book must be read, a lecture heard, or a topic debated. For some Harvard undergraduates that task comes with added obstacles, whether it’s attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, or dyslexia.

A new student arrives at the FAS Accessible Education Office nearly every workday to report a disorder, according to Sheila B. Petruccelli, the office’s interim director.

Many of those students will seek official recognition from the office to receive what are referred to as “accommodations,” a category that includes additional time on exams or peer note-takers.

“[T]he office is currently providing services to approximately 250 students, if we exclude students with physical disabilities, including vision and hearing impairments,” wrote Jeff A. Neal, college spokesman.

The Office is charged with a weighty responsibility: advancing the College’s stated mission “to create knowledge” in all students, disabled or otherwise, while making sure that accommodations are not taken unfair advantage of and maintaining the integrity of academic standards. Undergraduates who receive accommodations are not without complaints, but they do recognize the challenge in meeting both goals day-to-day, case-by-case.

And in this case, Michael has Asperger’s, a neurological condition that he says contributes to both his disorganization and his perfectionism. After failing the paper, he began what can be an arduous process: proving to the College that he had Asperger’s and needed accommodations. There were a number of steps, one of which was an all-day study at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Michael is not alone in his decision to turn to the AEO after a particularly tumultuous freshman fall. The Office mails information to every newly-admitted freshman and informs him or her of the availability of accommodations. Despite their outreach, every year it takes a tough semester to push some freshmen to consider that something else might be going on.

“Freshman year is a difficult year for probably everybody to some extent,” Petruccelli says.

Of course, a difficult semester alone does not qualify a student for an accommodation from the AEO. Students must submit their past diagnoses to the Office, which are reviewed by a professional neuropsychologist. The students are also asked to indicate their anticipated needs so that the neuropsychologist can evaluate those requests.

“The accommodations are there to level the playing field,” says Petruccelli. “It doesn’t give an unfair advantage.”

Mary, a senior, never suspected that her brain worked any differently from her those of her peers while growing up, even though a single test could take several class periods to complete. Mary, who asked that her real name not be used, assumed that she just took longer than others to focus and complete academic work. She still managed to be at the top of her class four years running, according to Mary. Her mother had suspected that she had severe ADHD since Mary was 3 or 4 years old, Mary says. However, her mother was wary of having Mary diagnosed because of the stigma their small, conservative town placed on medicated children with ADHD.

“They were considered the bad students, the out-of-control students, even by teachers,” Mary recalls. “[My mom] was worried that if I had extra time or accommodations that my academic status in the school would be delegitimized.”

However, because Mary was only able to finish roughly 60 percent of her standardized ACT and SAT exams, Mary’s mother encouraged her daughter to get diagnosed her senior year of high school. It was then that Mary also began taking Adderall. Mary says that when she applied to Harvard, she acknowledged that she received extended time on standardized tests.

Undergraduates are not required or prohibited from identifying that they have a disability or disorder that might affect their time at Harvard when applying to the College.

“For some, the disclosure of a disability in, say, a college essay, may make sense,” says James H. Wendorf, executive director for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “They want to talk about the steps they’ve taken to overcome that develop compensatory skills that may be of special interest to the College.” But others may not want their learning disability taken into account when they are evaluated for admission.

“It’s a very personal decision,” he says.

Harvard has become more open to admitting students who, despite their demonstrated thirst for knowledge, struggle to learn.

“Fifty years ago, students who were dyslexic were just considered stupid, and they could rarely have the opportunity to benefit from higher learning,” writes Howard E. Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at the Graduate School of Education, in an e-mail to The Crimson. During his five decades at Harvard, Gardner, who studies the nature of intelligence, has seen the University become a place that better understands the nuances of the challenges that some of its students face.

“I can say that some students with learning difficulties have performed brilliantly, and others have suffered and should never have been admitted, at least given our current state of knowledge and the intellectual prostheses at our disposal,” Gardner writes. “Perhaps some day that will change.”