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Fall 2021
Facilitated by Zahra Fakraai, Chemistry, and Heather Love, English


Useful statistic to be aware of: 19% of post-secondary students in the US identify as having a disability (from the National Center for Educational Statistics)

Aaron Spector, Director of Disability Services

How Disability Services works with students at Penn:

  • Students self-identify through the Disability Services online portal, indicate their need and the accommodations they seek
  • Students can ask for accommodations anytime after they are accepted but accommodations cannot be applied retroactively (can’t ask for extra time on an exam they’ve already taken.)
  • Students have the choice to renew and/or disclose their needs each semester; when students do not feel welcome, they may delay getting the support they need;
  • Students who need testing accommodations need to give  8 days advance notice;

What instructors can do:

  • Students often feel alone and instructors can normalize this in class just making mention of the office, and when appropriate refer students for services; also it can help to mention what you’ve done to create more accessibility for students (be transparent about how you teach your course)
  • Create welcoming syllabus statements can help students with disabilities feel that they can ask for help or use accommodations without fear of stigma
  • When you announce exams and send out reminders add a note encouraging students to make arrangements for the accommodations
  • Help DS when they need to  hire and coordinate note-takers from the class (DS will reach out to you if they need this help)
  • Use the web portal for getting exams to DS.  (Here’s a link to how to access and use the web porta)
  • Partner with DS share constructive and productive feedback from instructors to better support processes and support and use DS as a partner to help students

Heather Love, English

  • Consider how to make the class more inclusive and accommodating for all students, even those that don’t disclose
  • Sense that the process can be inequitable -- costs can be high to get a diagnosis
  • Be aware that accommodations don’t cover all challenges and that people’s status changes.
  • Recognize that COVID has shifted everyone’s sense of what is a disability.  Faculty have had to make lots of adjustments on the fly.
    • The syllabus can signal a lot about your flexibility and willingness to support students
      • De-stigmatization is important
      • Be human and lively
      • Some examples from CTL’s website
  • Create flexible policies for deadlines and absences while still keeping structure in mind so that students have due dates and can be part of class
  • Universal Design is not always possible; when not, fall back on good teaching and listening to students’ needs and everyone’s situation is different

Zahra Fakraai, Chemistry

  • Understand that the process of diagnosis can take many years; chronic diseases can flare up with stress or otherwise unexpectedly
  • Start with a point of empathy and be clear about expectations for class and what students need to do to demonstrate those (for example, does an exam need to be timed or can students have the option to skip or drop an assessment if they don’t thrive in a certain modality)
  • Communicate with students about their needs, even if they have an accommodation; sometimes easy things can make a big difference
  • Lower barriers to ask for an extension, as not all students know it is acceptable to ask for one


    • Fairness, structure, and also the need to be transparent about expectations and policies, and also transparent about how we work within Penn systems
    • This is complicated work -- there are processes in place but there remain lots of gray areas.

Communicate with students and be ready to learn from themWhat about fairness to other students? Where do we draw the line?

  • Flexibility should be for everyone, when appropriate (ie., extensions) so make your policies on those clear to everyone up front
  • When individual hardships require a lot of flexibility, for example a student with a lot of absences who is having a hard time or a student with a sprained ankle missing an exam, what is the best approach?
    • Be in good communication with advisors (use Course Problem Notices in some cases)
    • Be clear about your expectations (and how much missed class results in failure)
    • Seek/consider alternatives (online exams for example if a student can’t get to the classroom)
    • Accommodations are not protective of consequences; if a student with accommodations does not do the work, they can fail
    • Don’t let bad actors and those exploiting the system (or fear of them) affect students with real needs
  • Is it possible to provide clear guidelines to faculty about what they can and can not allow? the ambiguity can be hard for instructors to navigate
    • But there will always be gray areas and individual circumstances, so it may be helpful to have clear absolutes knowing that there will need to be judgement calls
    • Some sense that not all instructors will be fair in all circumstances
    • Need to work with colleagues to help educate them about these issues
  • Seeking clarity on why students can opt-out of using their accommodations
    • Not all conditions are fixed (they can be episodic) and some might be stigmatized or student may have had bad experiences from their K12 education or another instructor; some students decide to only ask when they feel an accommodation might be needed; DS does encourage students to ask for accomodations before they need them, but not all students do that
    • Move away from always positioning things in terms of grades but also toward the larger goals of learning, engagement, and overall community building
  • Understanding that there may be barriers for students getting the accommodations they need, including access to the right physicians/psychologists, significant financial costs, and knowledge of the resources that are available, which is why building more accommodations into class for all students can be beneficial
    • Resource shared in chat: Academic’s Ablest Mindset Needs to Change
    • And from New York Times: Need Extra Time on Tests: It Helps to Have Cash
    • Penn has resources to support students:
    • Can a leave of absence be appropriate for disabled students?
      • It may be for some students and not others; for example, this may be more complex for graduate students
      • Some rely on their income at Penn; international students may lose their visas
      • In situations where a student appears struggling and may need a leave, lean heavily on advising offices to make individuals situations work and find ways to support students’ needs
  • How has the pandemic changed what students need? And are they aware of their needs?
    • Students getting used to socializing again
    • Students getting used to in-person exams
    • Students getting used to being in class
    • Mental health disabilities are more wide spread and can be more difficult to balance (students with depression for example may not be able to communicate with professors)
    • But the pandemic has also made it easier to talk about how health challenges impede learning -- everyone experienced it so it feels regular
  • What are specific things that can be helpful?
    • Useful to have a broader take on disability that addressing disabilities is not about grades
    • Giving students choices and options can be really helpful to help students navigate their needs in a given course
    • Use articles in class about ableism and talk about the way the issue affects your field (Academic’s Ablest Mindset Needs to Change)
    • Set up a structure and a set of expectations about what students need to do in the class
    • Talk to your students and be curious about their experiences and what you can do
    • Consider creating alternatives for students (for example in a class that uses a lot of group work, create a group for people who do not work together “quiet group” -- they can do the work on their own and the other groups will be more functional)
    • Provide different kinds of assignments (so allow students to use discussions in Piazza as an alternative to in class participation.)
    • Give students a due date for a paper and if they can’t turn it in then let them take an exam the next day (as an alternative to the paper)
    • Structure assignments -- open ended assignments that give students a lot of freedom can be really difficult for some students so provide more direction in the assignment

Some themes of today’s conversation:

  • Fairness, structure, and also the need to be transparent about expectations and policies, and also transparent about how we work within Penn systems
  • This is complicated work -- there are processes in place but there remain lots of gray areas.
  • Communicate with students and be ready to learn from them