Why providing accommodations does not doom students for the real world

About the Author

Carolyn M. Shivers, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Niagara University. Her research focuses on individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, as well as the impact of ableism and ableist beliefs on well-being and family functioning. At her previous institution, she created and led an undergraduate minor in Disabilities Studies, which grew to be the largest minor at the university. Through teaching and outreach, she works to dismantle exclusionary structures in higher education and make colleges and universities accessible spaces for students, staff, and faculty.  experiences navigating academia with a disability and publishes work aimed at increasing the representation, equity, and inclusion of people with disabilities in psychology. Across her research, clinical work, and advocacy, she strives to improve mental health care. 

I have given numerous talks and workshops over the years, encouraging instructors in higher education to make their courses more inclusive. One of the most common questions/pushbacks people get when discussing accommodations or accessibility in the classroom is “But shouldn’t we be preparing the students for the real world?” The implication is, of course, that the “real world” – presumably, wherever students end up working – will not provide accommodations. Deadlines are deadlines. Formatting requirements are set in stone. How we’ve always done things is how we’ll continue to do things.

I understand this line of thinking. From a very young age, most of us are taught that the next level will be more difficult. What we do in middle school won’t be tolerated in high school; what we get away with in high school won’t fly in college. As members of a profoundly capitalist society, we spend the vast majority of our formative years ostensibly preparing for the “real world” of paid work. Therefore, to provide students with supports in school that they are less likely to receive in the workplace is to do them a disservice.

Most of us who strive to promote inclusion and accessibility have encountered this sort of argument. Last year, when asked a version of the above “real world” question by a graduate student in a teaching seminar, I was able to coalesce my various beliefs into three reasons Why Providing Accommodations Does Not Doom Students for the Real World.

  1. They’ll learn elsewhere. I harbor no false belief that my course is the only course a student is taking or will ever take. I do, however, believe that most of the courses students have taken or will ever take are likely to be less accommodating to disability needs than mine. In fact, by the time they reach my university classroom, disabled students have been taught over and over that accommodations are antithetical to rigor. If I provide the accommodations that they need to have an equitable collegiate experience, they’re not going to un-learn years of ableist expectations.
  2. I can do both. Ability to adhere to unyielding deadlines and demands are not the only valuable workplace skills. I firmly believe that, by teaching my students critical thinking, nuanced, respectful communication, and thoughtful consumption of information, I am preparing them for the “real world.” And I can do it while fully integrating every single accommodation letter that comes across my desk.
  3. We are the real world. The enduring distinction between educational settings and the “real world” is a false one. We are educators. This is our job. We are in charge of designing a space to maximize our students’ learning the same way managers are in charge of creating environments to maximize productivity, profit, service, or whatever their companies’ goals are. Therefore, I can choose to use my tiny corner of academia to push the boundaries of societal accessibility toward full inclusion, and, perhaps, in doing so, I can demonstrate to my students how to push those boundaries in their own careers.

One Response

  1. I think you’ve done a terrific job articulating these points and pointing out the false association between accommodations and lack of rigor in some way. When I talk with students who are beyond exasperated about how my colleagues have responded to them, this is the biggest issue – the assumption that they are less serious as students or trying to cut corners.
    The other response I hear is that accommodations make things unfair for other students, which of course is ludicrous.

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