On August 17, 2017, a few weeks before thousands of university students will head off to class, the National Post ran an opinion piece by Queen’s University Professor of Law, Bruce Pardy under the headline “Mental disabilities shouldn’t be accommodated with extra time on exams.”
Both the content and the context of this badly argued plea for bad policy need to be examined.
Pardy’s National Post opinion piece, which was immediately ridiculed on *Twitter, was based on an article he published in an academic journal.
“My anecdotal experience is that many professors do not agree with providing extra time for cognitive and mental disabilities…” Pardy
Pardy’s argument is based on several assumptions that he fails to prove, namely:
- that disabled students who are eligible for additional time in writing an exam benefit in ways that exceeds equity and causes advantage;
- that non-disabled students who are not eligible for additional time would have higher tests scores if they were allowed additional time to write the exam;
- that students eligible for additional time do not experience at least the same level of challenge and pressure as non-disabled students who write the exam without accommodation.
“If a professor granted extra time on the exam to Caucasian students, the others would obviously have a complaint under the [Human Rights] code.” Pardy
When stripped of its unsubstantiated speculation, ridiculous comparisons, misrepresentation and/or misunderstanding of disability and accommodations, and a bizarrely long and utterly condescending treatise on the word ‘discriminate,’ the article is little more than un-academic-like broad stroke generalizations and Pardy’s strongly held, unsupported or disputed by evidence, opinions.
When I began reading the National Post article I was unclear what Pardy meant by ‘mental disabilities’ and after I finished reading the academic journal article I remained equally so. As a result it sometimes comes across as uncomfortably close to ‘those people.’
“People discriminate constantly…Diners choose Sheppard’s pie instead of stir-fry…” Pardy
The academic journal version is wordier than the one that ran in the newspaper but not significantly more substantive. The footnotes are…revealing.
Pardy believes extra exam time as an accommodation is a bad thing. The sentence asserting that such accommodations create difficulty refers to extra time on exams and assignments.
The note attached to that statement is: a) about how to accommodate students who require additional time for writing intensive courses; b) presents compelling evidence in favour of providing extra time accommodations for writing exams.
“One common academic practice is particularly fraught with difficulty 1: extra time on exams and assignments for students with cognitive and mental health difficulties.” Pardy, Education and Law
The article (1) Pardy notes is entitled, “Learning Disabilities and the Americans With Disabilities Act; The Conundrum of Dyslexia and Time” and is authored by Suzanne E. Rowe.
From the outset and throughout, Rowe makes clear she supports the very thing Pardy opposes – providing additional time during examinations.
Rowe “concludes that extra time is warranted on the typical law school exam and in the typical seminar class (where a paper is usually the sole method of grading students). The article argues, though, that students with learning disabilities should prefer light-loading courses during semesters when they take writing-intensive classes…”
Rowe’s journal submission, (whether you agree with the conclusions or not – and I offer no opinion either way), is a solid piece of academic writing and one can’t help wondering if Pardy bothered to read it.
“Significantly, in untimed tests the students with learning disabilities performed as well as the normally achieving students. Moreover, the normally achieving students did not perform significantly better when they were given extra time. Recent work has confirmed the results of this study. ” Rowe
Unlike Pardy, Rowe is very clear about the perimeters of her article. She is specific about which disability, which accommodation and in what circumstances.
Also, Rowe’s objective is to offer an alternative solution – not to tell disabled students who require additional time to, ‘suck it up, too bad, if it’s a problem you don’t belong here.’
“The general conclusion of these studies and others is that extra time levels the playing field without providing an undue advantage to students with learning disabilities.” Rowe
Rowe defines her terms, reviews existing literature and practice, and clarifies where this article fits within all of the above. It is the type of writing one would expect to find in an academic journal.
Rowe states: “At the outset, it is important to realize that a number of different learning disabilities exist, although laypersons often lump them together.”
Whereas Pardy writes, “cognitive and mental health difficulties are experienced by a significant portion of the post-secondary student population in Canada.”
Not only does Pardy not narrow his focus or clarify what specific disability he is objecting to accommodating, he drops the word disability entirely.
“Occasionally I can tell which exams have been accommodated…Sometimes the answers in those exams are significantly longer than any of the others.” Pardy
This lackadaisical attitude towards terminology might be why Pardy sometimes appears to confuse and/or equate his own personal feelings and anecdotal, out of context snippets of conversations, with scholarly research and data.
When Pardy asserts that the process used to determine accommodation is not impartial because “no neutral assessment is made between competing interests”, his note (44) for this is: “I once attended a seminar presented by an officer from our university’s Accessibility Services Office. I had the opportunity to ask whether she considered herself to be an advocate for disabled students or an adjudicator of disability claims. She considered the question for a moment and then answered, ‘Both.”
After talking about the number of students with ‘cognitive and mental health difficulties’ Pardy cites statistics about depression, OCD and anxiety disorders, ADD and learning disabilities among Canadian post-secondary students.
The next line and note explains why details about the nature of the disability and why and what providing some extra time to finish writing an exam is attempting to accommodate for, don’t, in his opinion, matter.
Pardy: “The practice imposes an undue hardship on others in the class(2) and is contrary to the law. ”
In the notes for (2) Pardy states: “Whether extra time on exams and assignments actually results in higher grades would be difficult to establish. Some students may benefit and others may not. The question is irrelevant to whether extra time is a legitimate accommodation. If the accommodated student improves her grades because of the extra time, the accommodation is unfair to other students in the class. If she does not, the accommodation is unnecessary and serves no useful purpose. Either way, extra time is not appropriate.”
In making this statement Pardy appears to misunderstand and/or misrepresent the entire point of accommodations. He is unintentionally correct in saying the effect on a student’s grade is not relevant for determining accommodations but not for the reasons he suggests.
The effect – or not – on a disabled student’s grades is not an appropriate qualification or measure of an accommodation because accommodations are not made in order to help a student improve their grade – although that may be the outcome.
A disabled student eligible for extra time could be as well or as poorly prepared as a non-disabled student for an exam. If poorly prepared or unable to grasp the course material, the accommodation will not assist them in attaining a higher grade because it is not designed to.
An accommodation is not intended to help a student achieve, it is intended to allow them to.
The University of Toronto, Mississauga website description: “Academic accommodations do not alter the essential program requirements or expectations, nor do they give the student an added advantage. Rather, accommodations are granted in order to mitigate the negative effects of a disability and allow the student to function optimally. With accommodations in place, they must fulfill the same duties and essential program requirements as every other student.”
I would word it differently. I would argue many (most?) accommodations are aimed at mitigating the negative effects of being a disabled student within an ableist system that often uses unrefined and sometimes arbitrary tools for measuring learning.
Pardy’s article made me curious about the time element of exam design – so I Googled it.
Various links all suggested that the teacher/instructor/professor take the test themselves and then multiply the time it took them to complete their own test, (depending on the institution the suggested multiple varied) to determine the time necessary for students. So the first number is based upon how long an individual professor took to complete their own exam, (presumably there is some variation from professor to professor in test-taking speed), which is then multiplied by a number that varied depending on the institution.
Of course whether the time allotted for an exam is appropriate is irrelevant because Pardy argue exams are really competitions between specific students in a specific class.
For this and other reasons he believes exams are “equivalent” to a running race in the World Track and Field Championship. For Pardy, accommodations of time for a student with a learning disability are as inappropriate and unfair as allowing a runner with an injury a 20-meter head start in the World Track and Field Championships.
Leaving aside Pardy’s particular approach to pedagogy, in order for him to prove that absolute and universally applied, (regardless of disability), exam times are a bona fide and thus ‘legal’ means of discriminating among students, he has to prove that allowing additional time due to disability creates an unfair advantage to disabled students over non-disabled students.
Simply saying so, does not make it true. So what is necessary to prove Pardy’s point?
First, it would seem important to establish what role time plays in the ‘competition.’ Is it a factor or the factor.
As a far as I am aware writing an exam is not a spectator sport and students do not receive medals, corporate sponsors or even additional marks for being the first to finish an exam. (Students who finish early are, however, rewarded with the pleasure of spending less time in the classroom with professors like Pardy.)
A time limit, (not speed), is a factor in examinations whereas in a running race time is the determining factor for success.
A pie eating contest at a county fair and a Michelin Star both include time as a measure. For the pie eating contest, achievement is measured either by number of pies eaten within a time period or the speed at which someone consumed a set number of pies. In the case of the coveted Michelin star, overall dining experience is one of the criteria -which would include not waiting inordinate amounts of time between courses.
Both competitions also involve the consumption of food making them potentially more similar in nature than a world championship running race and a university exam.
Pardy fails to demonstrate time is “equivalent” to that of a running race in which time is the determining factor used for judging success.
Still, Pardy argues inflexible time limits in exams are vital for two reasons.
He states that other students grades would improve if allowed more time – but, again he provides no evidence to support this claim and, as mentioned earlier, Rowe, in the article Pardy cites, reviews the research that proves otherwise.
“The general conclusion of these studies and others is that extra time levels the playing field without providing an undue advantage to students with learning disabilities.” Rowe
Second Pardy suggests the ability to grade how well a student performs under pressure is an essential part of academic achievement.
And even if you agree, (and many don’t), that testing a student’s ability to perform under pressure is a meaningful marker, in order to establish unfair advantage Pardy would need to show that a disabled student with an additional time accommodation experiences less stress in that situation than a non-disabled student experiences writing an exam within the regular exam time frame without accommodations.
Pardy provides no evidence of this either.
In the version that was published in one of Canada’s national newspapers shortly before the beginning of a new academic term this was the headline.
“Bruce Pardy: Mental disabilities shouldn’t be accommodated with extra time on exams. A professor who awards an A to the best exam and a B to the middle of the pack discriminates between exams. She also discriminates between students on the basis of their cognitive skills and mental abilities.”
The headline let readers know Pardy was not arguing in favour of discriminating against all disabled people, just some disabled people. The ones with the ‘mental disabilities.’
I can’t help thinking about the effect of this headline on students, parents and teachers at this time of year.
Inclusive Education at the Post-Secondary Level: Attitudes of Students and ProfessorsHindes, Yvonne; Mather, JenniferExceptionality Education Canada, v17 n1 p107-128 2007
“We asked students and professors at the University of Lethbridge to indicate their acceptance of three levels of inclusion (included in classes, provided with assistance and provided with professorial accommodation) for students with five categories of disabilities (sensory, language, motor, attention and psychiatric disabilities). Participants’ attitudes were rated on a seven point scale. Attitudes were more negative toward students with psychiatric and attention disabilities than those with sensory, language, or motor disabilities. Providing professorial accommodations was also rated as less favourable than inclusion in classes and providing assistance. Attempts must continue to be made to ensure full inclusion at the university level. Increased awareness of professors, students and the general public is required before individuals with disabilities can overcome the barriers preventing them from full acceptance.
But simply because a professor feels that way doesn’t make those feelings justified. Should we indulge these feelings or should we educate the professors and while they are learning safeguard the rights of disabled students in their classrooms?
If this ‘we don’t mind students with mobility and sensory impairments as much’ is intended to be reassuring to me as a wheelchair user, it isn’t.
I saw this distinction as one of many red flags. On what basis is Pardy – or anyone else for that matter – determining a physical or sensory impairment to be more worthy of accommodation?
As a wheelchair user I am aware that I face discrimination and I am also aware that I am literally the symbol ♿️ for many people’s understanding of disability. Barriers that prevent or impede my access are more likely to be understood by the general public.
What is less well understood is that providing extra time to complete an exam for those with disabilities that require it, is based on the same principles as building ramps for wheelchair users to get inside a building.
Ramps are accommodations.
Stairs are designed based on a set of assumptions about the humans who will use them – height, pulmonary and cardiac function, muscular and neurological functioning, etc.
Design assumes uniformity when in fact there is wide variation.
In the case of exam time, design also ignores variations.
Pardy can concede that building a ramp into a classroom doesn’t provide me with unfair advantage, (the objections to my accommodations are usually based on arguing its unfairness of costs incurred to an institution or loss to other students of whatever great thing they can’t have because funds are being devoted to accessibility).
Pardy understands the ramp simply allows me into the classroom and acknowledges that I do once I am in, is up to me. However, when it comes to time accommodations for exams, Pardy is scornful.
“Races are run to answer whether not why…If you lost the race…the reason does not matter. The same is true for exams and assignments.” Pardy
This body of mine that uses a wheelchair to get around is a human body. The design that assumes I have to walk to access a space is not based on science, evidence or even common knowledge – it’s based on judgment about which bodies are the right bodies and which bodies are valued enough to be included. Likewise, the design that determines how long it takes someone to answer questions is not based on science or evidence, it’s based on assumptions that have been perpetuated and solidified by excluding those whose presence and achievement might challenge their veracity.
The consequences of limiting access to knowledge based on assumptions about the time it takes for someone to write out an answer to an exam question is significant not only to the individual who is thus excluded but to the society as a whole.
Who and what is lost because of a stopwatch?
And is the value of that loss greater or smaller than the loss a professor experiences by no longer being able to insist each and every student in his class, regardless of disability, has to write the exam in the exact same time frame.
I find the cost of not accommodating students far greater than whatever frustration Mr. Pardy may feel at having to accept the expertise of medical professionals and disability services staff about providing additional time to a student deemed eligible for that accommodation.
*There are many tweets and threads on Twitter responding to Pardy’s piece. Here are two suggestions – both tweets are beginnings of threads.