Failing Students With Disabilities – Who is Failing Whom?


In addition to teaching English Composition, I also tutor remedial writers in the university’s writing center. One of my tutees, let’s call him Sam, failed English Composition last semester and is taking it for the second time this semester. Sam has a rare neurological disorder that makes it difficult for him to read and process large amounts of text in short periods of time. When I first met Sam, I was taken aback by his dry, witty sense of humor; he has a keen ability to highlight subtleties and make them funny. He once commented on my eyes being the same color blue as his wheelchair, and he thought maybe that’s the reason why we got along so well.

Sam’s Extraordinary Disability

During our weekly tutoring sessions, we spend a considerable amount of time annotating passages of text assigned by his English Composition professor so Sam can later respond to the assigned prompts. We talk about the content, highlight unfamiliar words, and review main ideas. Our sessions are tedious because Sam’s brain requires him to think in a tedious manner. His neurons do not directly connect, so even the smallest fissure in chronological information can cause him confusion. Logical concepts for him are abstract, so he has to constantly put puzzles together. Abstract concepts are even harder to process. I often wonder how he is able to think theoretically if, theoretically, he is always putting pieces together to form a bigger picture. Thinking abstractly requires us to rearrange and dismantle the picture – Sam can’t do this.

Sam always focuses on the logical pieces of a text. This means that he can be painstakingly slow. Being Sam can be frustrating without patience – I know this first-hand.  Before I understood the severity of Sam’s disability, my frustration with his slowness would often manifest in rushing him through the readings. We already went over this Sam! You don’t need to underline every main word of every sentence in every paragraph! You already annotated this passage – how many more notes do you need? I regret those thoughts. I didn’t understand then what I understand now. Sam isn’t disabled but extraordinarily abled.

Sam’s Extraordinary Abilities

Sometimes Sam will make points about the assigned readings that I had never thought about – he’s smart like that. He can recall historical events on the spot, without the assistance of Google, and layer historical implications within a story that other students are often unable to contribute. His long-term memory is threatening too. He will quickly correct me if I quote a philosopher wrong or if I contradict myself. I like when Sam corrects me because I know that his brain is working hard to maintain order, so I work harder to recall my facts correctly. He keeps me on my toes.

Sam is a careful note-taker too. He likes to record our conversations with a digital voice recorder and review the recordings in order to take meticulous notes. His notebook is one collective work of art, carefully comprised of our weekly tutoring sessions organized in understandable hierarchies with perfect bulleted points and references to the assigned texts. His note-taking takes him hours, sometimes days to process and produce. Sam likes to talk about his notes, and I like to hear him talk about his notes. He is proud of his outlines and he often smiles when reviewing his key points. When he is able to organize all of the new information from his studies into one, beautifully constructed outline, Sam is happy because Sam knows that he gets the information. But lately Sam has not been happy. Sam is failing English Composition.

Teachers With Disabilities

Sam’s English Composition teacher assigns weekly reading and writing assignments that are quite extensive. Recently the class was assigned half of a novel to read in one week. This is manageable for most college students, but Sam could not finish the reading despite our tutoring sessions. As such, he could not submit the writing response, and Sam is now falling further and further behind. I continue to console and assist him, but he is paralyzed by the amount of reading he has yet to complete.

Sam has reached the point where he cannot see past his disability, and this is disheartening to watch. Have you ever watched a student’s light go out? It’s infuriating. I am angry with the teacher, with the system, and with the lack of understanding from everyone. I fear that the professor is the one that is suffering from a disability and requires accommodations. I am struggling with Sam’s struggle because, for the second time, a teacher has failed to honor Sam’s extraordinary abilities.

The educational system is quick to provide accommodations for documented student disabilities, but who is failing whom if the disabled student continues to fail? Why do teachers continue to structure lessons the same for disabled students without truly accommodating for students’ learning processes? What does Sam’s situation say about college admittance and subsequent dismissal of students who do not meet the college’s status quo?

Sam is not dumb. In fact, he has something extraordinary to offer the world. There is a place for Sam in higher education, and yet I question that statement the more I watch higher education fail him and other students in comparable situations. Because in the end, Sam will not fail English Composition due to his disability. Sam will fail English Composition because of the system’s inability to accommodate for his extraordinary learning process.


About these ads

3 replies

  1. What a discouraging situation. Sam is certainly lucky to have you as his tutor! It seems that you’ve gained as much as he has during your time together. I’m always grateful for such individual interaction with students because I always come out better for it :)

    Does your university have any academic services for students with disabilities? We have an SFSWD office (Services for Students with Disabilities). The students have to register with the office so that their professors can be notified of the kind of accommodations they’ll need. A student like Sam, after being tested to verify the disability, would be allowed the reasonable accommodation of extended time to complete assignments and tests. In the testing situation, the student would take the test during and for a set amount of time past the scheduled class time in the SFSWD office–proctored of course. This office has been established for years, but just recently, all faculty were required to attend disabilities training to be sure that we’re aware of what constitutes “reasonable accommodations” and the kind of legal trouble we put the university at risk of if we don’t comply.

    • Unfortunately, the Student Disabilities Office is only offering and enforcing the minimum accommodations. Without modified assessments, which are not required, I fear Sam will be repeating the course … indefinitely.

Thoughts? Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s