Every time you use a set of stairs or an elevator, you are using an accommodation to make up for your inability to fly from one floor to another. Imagine having to justify your need for stairs every time you need them.
While getting from one floor to another is no longer a problem for me, the open response parts of standardized tests are a huge stumbling block. For the past weeks, I have been taking AP and other tests. I know the material well — actually, beyond “well.” According to my U.S. History teacher, I could teach the content related to modern world history.
That’s because it is a subject I am passionate about and I tend to develop encyclopedic knowledge about topics that I’m drawn to. That’s not uncommon for an autistic person, which I am. So why is it likely that my AP test grade won’t accurately reflect my understanding of the content?
Because when I take a test, especially one with a lot of writing, it takes an intense amount of focus and effort for me to organize my thoughts and get them down in a way that makes sense. It is so exhausting that I usually run out of steam before I finish. But, if you were to ask me the question, I could probably talk for hours.
Imagine trying to write an essay with your non-dominant hand. That’s sort of what it’s like for me although it’s not just about the physical part of writing … My brain is not “neurotypical.” It is not physiologically like the brain of someone who does not have ADHD, dysgraphia, Tourette’s syndrome or autism. I don’t share these things because I am looking for sympathy or an easy out; I share because I am not alone in my frustration with wanting a level playing field. Students like me want to have the same opportunities to compete and the same shot at an independent future as other students.
But it feels like a battle every step of the way. To get the accommodations in the first place, you go through an extreme vetting process – to make sure that you are not getting an unfair advantage and to compensate for the apparent minions of dishonest students who may have abused the system. It is interesting to me that no one seems to be able to tell me how many students have been abusive, but students like me pay the price for others’ actual or perceived dishonesty.
Even with accommodations, like a scribe and extra time, some very well qualified students are not able to demonstrate what they know and are being shut out. Actually, this is true for many students who just may not be great at taking tests.
We, the lucky ones, are supposed to be thankful for the accommodations offered to us. The perception by some is that we are given a gift – that providing accommodations results in a competitive advantage. Does a person who needs glasses have an unfair advantage over someone who does not?
Or, in the case of someone like me who doesn’t “look” like (or “seem” like) someone who might need extra help, the perception is often one of laziness or a lack of motivation. (Can you tell by looking at someone if they have diabetes?) Some seem to assume that needing an accommodation in one area means lacking ability in all areas. (Does wearing glasses mean a person can’t read?)
The closer I get to college, the more I see this mindset reflected in discriminatory rules and inflexible thinking which govern many academic and scholarship competitions, standardized testing, access to AP, IB, and dual credit courses, in the college admissions process and in some cases, the college courses themselves.
In contrast to the National Merit scholarship competition, the Kentucky Association for Academic Competitions refuses to allow extended time on a required written test for our state’s most prestigious scholarship competition, the Governor’s Cup, claiming that students are competing against the clock as well as against each other. When I asked how time was used to determine a winner, the answer came back loud and clear: “time is not used; only the correct number of answers determines the winner.” “Even in a tie?” I asked. In a tie, they take a holistic look at the students. Hmmm – we’ll look at students as individuals only if absolutely forced to do so and only at the end of the cookie-cutter process.
I also asked for their data on how many students had unfairly won scholarships as a result of having been allowed extended time and how many students with disabilities participate every year and what research they had done to measure the differences in outcomes. No response.
Once accepted to college, there are administrators and professors who may or may not recognize “hidden” dis/abilities like the ones I have as legitimate. The college culture insists that I “self-advocate” (a hallmark of autism is a challenge with social communications so for some this is nearly impossible), and that there can be no adjustments made which might “fundamentally alter” the nature of the program. But in many schools, there is little education of or support for faculty about what this means or how to accommodate.
Dis/ability offices are not usually well funded. They have few resources or staff. And too many also buy in to rigid thinking about how qualified students can be accommodated or what the truly “essential’ elements of a program are – hiding behind regulations which actually permit a lot more flexibility than acknowledged. We need to think this through.
I am not looking for watered down requirements. And I know that I am more than my grade on an AP test. But if I need to have help with organizing my thoughts and writing them down, as I did for this essay, or if you can more accurately assess my understanding by allowing me to verbally respond, why not? There is a lot of talk about individualizing education. The ultimate individualization is having an IEP (individual education plan). I think every student deserves one.
So now I am self-advocating and also “other” advocating. On behalf of the 6.5 million students with disabilities in the U.S., who are ABLE to be educated and employed, the 5.5 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. today, and the millions of un or underemployed adults with disabilities, it is time to build an up escalator for people and send all the boulders down to their demise at the bottom of the hill.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Jack Bradley is a high-school student in Louisville, Kentucky.