The Calculus of Medical Notes: Disability and Higher Education

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a graduate student teaching assistant in an undergraduate film class at a large state university. You are poorly paid, and entirely untrained. You have a full courseload of your own, and you are teaching a subject in which you have no expertise. Though your union contract stipulates you may only work a certain number of hours per week, this simply means the professors who are in charge of you assume you will work as hard as necessary to finish whatever they assign you within that set length of time. They will expect you to adapt to their plans, and they will not change those plans even if it becomes absurdly obvious that ten allotted hours is not enough time to grade sixty ten-page papers, read all the course's assigned texts, and create a discussion plan for two class sections. You are also the first line of professorial defense against the unwashed hordes of undergraduates, and so you are the one the students come to with doctor's notes, parents' notes, emails from home when they are sick. At some point, one student will come to you with a note from a doctor or a professor or the school's disability office. That note will say: there is an issue I am going to have, which conflicts with certain expectations for this class. Will you adapt those expectations?

Strangely, even though you do not have a lot of status with the professor, you have a great deal of power over an individual student's performance in your class section. You can cut them slack, or let them swing.

And the following calculation plays itself out:

  • The issue is either true or false.
  • You can believe this issue is either true or false.
  • You can adapt or not adapt the professor's expectations.

Here are the permutations:

  • Let's say the issue is true. You believe it is true. You adapt expectations (excusing certain absences, extending deadlines, making films available outside of class, and so on). Result: you feel pretty good. These changes don't tend to impact your own life to a large degree, since you're not really being graded here and the student in question is. (There are TA evaluations, but it is an open secret that these are just a bizarre end-of-term ritual, the paper equivalent of a Guy Fawkes bonfire.) You have made their life easier, and your own life is not harder for it.
  • Let's say the issue is false, but you believe (for one reason or another) that it is true. You adapt expectations, and still feel pretty good about the results.
  • Let's say the issue is true, but you believe it to be false. You adapt expectations because you are lazy and overworked. It's easier just to give in. You don't feel as good, but things are easier for your student anyway, regardless of how you feel.
  • Let's say the issue is true, and you believe it to be false, and in a burst of misguided self-righteousness you refuse to adapt expectations. Your student's life becomes more difficult as a result, and this disproportionately impacts their grade and even their life outside of class. If you handle this badly enough, your student may complain to one of the many offices that can make your own life infinitely more difficult. If you are enough of an asshole about it, you may be fired or have your funding pulled.
  • Let's say the issue is false, and you believe it to be false, and you refused to adapt expectations. You may feel smarter for a brief, fleeting second, but mostly you just feel grumpy. Your student hates being called a liar, and resents you for the rest of the term. Nobody's life is improved.

This equation points pretty clearly in the direction of adapting the class rules whether or not you believe your student: if you give your student the benefit of the doubt, on the whole it will make everyone's life easier. There is the tiniest chance you are being lied to, but if you had enough pride to care about that you would not be a TA in the first place, working for peanuts, living hand-to-mouth, and walking around like a sleep-deprived, addle-brained, thrift-store-clothes-wearing zombie.

And in my experience, people tend to make up stories about things other than permanent disabilities. Getting sick, cars breaking down, that sort of thing: temporary, designed so you don't ask any further questions. Casual, everyday excuses which you only see through when you run into them at the karaoke bar later that evening -- a fun not-awkward experience for everyone!

Meanwhile, the person who comes to you with the signed doctor's note about a learning disability that means they would like to be able to take notes on a laptop despite the professor's vehement statements that this is prohibited -- that person is certainly telling the truth. They know that you are likely to ask questions about polysyllabic medical terms and obscure collections of capital letters and precisely what accommodations they require. You will probably have to email the disability office, if your student has not already done so. They know there is a possibility you will refuse to help them, and they know that once they tellĀ  you they are disabled there is no going back. It is a vulnerable thing to confess, and is not done lightly.

So when I read things like this post, which partly deals with ableism in the classroom, I get mad. If you as a professor or instructor have the time and energy to be that malicious, that thoughtless of another human being's difficulties, you have no business working in higher education. Funny how ivory towers never seem to have elevators or wheelchair ramps.