Undercover ableism still exists in the classroom


Graphic by Katherine Irving '22 and Amanda Wong '23.

Adriana Saso-Graves, Columnist

In the day-to-day runnings of colleges and universities, there are many policies which are perceived as standard, such as attendance policies, participation policies, strict deadlines, anti-technology policies and others which directly or indirectly harm disabled and chronically ill students. While I understand that many professors at Macalester (and across the country) extend leniency and understanding to their students, the issue still needs to be addressed.

First up, and perhaps the most obviously ableist policy, are attendance policies. Rigid attendance policies mean to encourage class discussion or emphasize the importance of lectures, but only result in students begrudgingly prioritizing attendance over their health. My critique of this policy includes all-or-nothing policies, whereby if a student arrives late they are not allowed into the classroom, and it also includes leaving early without forewarning. If a student puts effort into attending class, they should not be dissuaded from learning.

Attendance policies also prioritize physical presence over intellectual engagement, which can cause further distress and damage to a student’s well-being. While one needs to be present in order to be engaged, no student should feel pressured to choose their grades over their health. At many universities, professors require a doctor’s note for approved absences. Not only does this policy encourage students to go to class when they are ill — which is unsanitary, reckless and an utter slap in the face to students with compromised immune systems — it is also extremely classist for multiple reasons. Many students who fall ill are not quite sick enough to require a visit to the doctor, and even for those who are sick enough to warrant a doctor’s visit, it can be extremely costly — the price of the visit itself, lost work time, transportation and expensive prescription medications. Ultimately, college and university students are adults and can decide when they are too sick, tired or otherwise unable to come to class. A better approach to strict attendance policies is to recognize that not all students have the same abilities and priorities, and they should feel that they can be open and honest without fear of consequence.

Related to attendance policies are participation policies. When professors implement strict participation policies, they directly affect students who are chronically ill (either mentally or physically) and students who have severe anxiety. Many of the reasons for which participation policies are ableist coincide with the aforementioned arguments against strict attendance policies, but I would also like to comment on classroom policies which do not allow students to use the restroom or step out of the class. Unfortunately, I am not kidding — I myself have taken a course with a professor at Macalester who implemented this policy. What I will say is this: it is an obnoxious abuse of authority. If a professor is interested in micromanaging their students, I would recommend teaching kindergarteners and not adults. If a student needs to step out, whether to use the restroom, take medication, answer a phone call or work through a panic attack, that should be none of the professor’s business. In fact, highlighting it or fighting a student on it is a grotesque demonstration that they would rather waste class time beleaguering a student than do their job – to educate.

Participation is an important aspect of a liberal arts education, but demanding that every student participate in the same way makes assumptions about students’ abilities. When instituting participation policies, it is important to include a variety of ways for students to participate (i.e. written work as opposed to verbal participation) and always allowing students to advise the professor if there is another student in the class they cannot work with and allowing students to pass if cold-calling is used.

Hard deadlines are yet another inadvertently ableist policy. They fail to consider mental and physical health, financial struggles and other unexpected and uncontrollable events. Many times, professors assign instructions for a paper or project one week before it is due. If you have an off-campus job, therapy or a doctor’s appointment, it can be a costly struggle to reschedule. Thus, this policy is encouraging students to stay up late sacrificing sleep, food and their general well-being to meet deadlines. Deadlines do not promote a growth mindset and are inconsiderate of students with learning disabilities, therefore reinforcing the misconception that “if you don’t know it by now, you’ll never know it.” They are also inconsiderate of students whose chronic physical disabilities may flare up without warning. If deadlines are the professor’s top priority as opposed to ensuring that their students are able to learn the content at all, then they should consider another profession.

My final critique is of anti-technology policies and refusal to be recorded without proper documentation. While studies show handwritten notes to have more benefit than typed notes, some classes are simply paced too quickly for students to get all of the information down. Not to mention, students who are auditory learners may be sacrificing the quality of the lecture for the quantity of notes. On a more basic level, carrying a laptop is simply less heavy than carrying multiple binders and notebooks. This policy is directly harmful to students with chronic pain and illnesses, especially for minority students who may struggle to get proper documentation due to our racist and sexist healthcare system. As for recordings, while I understand that there are many reasons why a professor or fellow students might not want to be recorded, there are two primary reasons to reconsider this stance. Firstly, students who have difficulty hearing sometimes use recordings to go over parts of a lecture or class discussion that they missed out on or had a hard time understanding. Secondly, it is incredibly difficult to get documentation of a learning disability as an adult if you do not already have it, including a long waiting period and multi-hundred dollar fees.

It should go without saying, but when we assume that all students have the same abilities, we assume that all students have the same needs, which is dangerous and irresponsible. Students deserve to have a say in the policies to which they are being subjected. Listening to students with chronic illnesses and disabilities can help professors better understand the ways in which their policies affect those students. If we want our classrooms to be inclusive learning environments, it is imperative to recognize the effects that attendance policies, participation policies, deadlines and anti-technology policies have on disabled and chronically ill students.