Student reflects on experiences at Brandeis with academic accommodations in light of new accommodation offerings
Student Accessibility Support updated academic accommodations at the start of the school year to include assignment extensions.
Student Accessibility Support added “limited extensions” to their list of academic accommodations available to students with disabilities at the start of last semester, per a March 19 email to the Justice from SAS Director Cara Streit.
According to “Academic Accommodations Defined,” a document provided to students with disabilities at the start of each semester, limited extensions are defined as “reasonable flexibility for assignment due dates.” The document emphasizes that this accommodation “is not an unfair advantage. For students who qualify for this accommodation, it ameliorates specific barriers and disadvantages related to their disability.”
Prior to the fall 2020 semester, the Justice spoke to students who were told by SAS that extensions could not be part of their formal set of accommodations presented to professors by SAS at the beginning of each semester. Although Streit — who took on her current role in Nov. 2020 — was not yet working at Brandeis when this accommodation was added, she told the Justice in her email that “student request and need, and SAS staff’s recognition of that need, really prompted the change.”
Streit explained that “standard timelines and late penalties” posed an added barrier to students who need additional time to complete assignments due to their disabilities. “They can also be barriers for students who have conditions that cause sudden symptoms, who may be on track for an assignment until symptoms arise,” Streit added.
Streit wrote in her email that many universities' disability services offices often do not offer this accommodation because they believe limited extensions will cause students with disabilities to fall even further behind. However, Streit wrote, “That's not actually the reality we see.” When students’ disabilities are getting in the way of completing assignments on time, “that will be the case whether they have the accommodation or not. This means that if they don't have it, an assignment may be behind anyway, and then it can be penalized in grading, which creates a false achievement gap between students with and without disabilities,” she wrote.
Strait explained that unless the timing of an assignment is specifically related to a course’s learning outcomes, “there is rarely a justification for not granting an extension.” She added that students, their professors and SAS can work together to figure out what a reasonable length for an extension might be.
Miriam Reichman ’21 spoke to the Justice on March 11 about her experiences with SAS in trying to acquire accommodations from Brandeis. Reichman said she first noticed the added accommodation option of limited extensions in “Academic Accommodations Defined.” Students work with SAS to determine which available accommodations are right for them. SAS compiles these into individualized letters for students to give to professors to ensure that their accommodations are being met. Reichman sent SAS an email requesting that limited extensions be added to her personal accommodation letter, alongside information regarding the accommodations she had previously received for the SATs. Senior Accessibility Specialist Kaitlyn Rogers “sent me my new letters and … finally, my last semester [at] Brandeis, I have the accommodation that I could have used all along,” Reichman said.
Reichman explained that she is diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety, and although she often found ADHD to serve her as a “gift that made [her] think creatively outside the box,” acclimating to college academic expectations was often difficult and draining. A poignant example of this occurred in her first year, in a University Writing Seminar class she deemed “tortuous.” She explained that she often struggles to submit papers on time, and that this particular class structure “colored [her] experience with writing at Brandeis.” Reichman lost all confidence in her writing capabilities, she explained.
Following her negative experiences with her UWS, Reichman wanted to get a smart pen to use in classes her sophomore year. This pen, she said, would help her keep up with notes in classes because of a function in which users can press record and the pen transcribes what is being recorded. At the time that she began the process of petitioning for the use of a smart pen, SAS was very short staffed, she said. In the mid-to-late fall 2019 semester, she got a meeting, and her smart pen was approved after a few months waiting period; however, this pen did not end up being the perfect solution she had hoped it would be.
Reichman also outlined her experiences with a specific history course. She explained that she has “a processing disorder” that often interferes with her ability to take notes and remain alert during class, hence the need for a smart pen. Normally, she explained, just the experience of being in class helped her absorb at least some information from what was being taught; however, if she were to fall into a depressive episode, her attendance, and therefore retention of information, would suffer.
In an effort to get extra help, Reichman reached out to former SAS director Beth Rogers Kay to set up a meeting that was originally planned for October 2018. The combination of her heavy course load and her restrictive schedule for when she can work — she observes Shabbat — resulted in tremendous stress levels, she said.
But in all of the craziness of life at the time, Reichman had to cancel the meeting. She asked when the new meeting date would be, and “[Rodgers-Kay’s] response was basically, ‘I can’t meet for a month,’” Reichman said. Rodgers-Kay abruptly left Brandeis in 2019, right before Reichman’s junior year. She did not get a meeting with Rodgers-Kay prior to her unexpected departure.
As her history final approached, Reichman’s anxiety was “all consuming.” She went to take her final and “froze,” without writing a single answer down, she recounted. She wrote her professor a long letter explaining her situation and “miraculously he took mercy on me, and I passed with a D.” Reichman said this example was mostly consistent with her overall experience with accessibility at Brandeis — she often received more help from professors than she did from SAS.
In Dec. 2019, Reichman attended the open sessions for the new SAS director search. Here, she explained, she learned about her rights and the ways that they were not being met by the University. “What could be given to me was so much more than what Brandeis was giving me,” she said.
Reflecting on her academic struggles at Brandeis, Reichman said that her “experience with the institution itself, like on an institutional level of disability support and whatnot, has been pretty negative, has been not very helpful, has been more like just an added burden.” She added, however, that she has hope for SAS after some of the changes she has seen in emails they have sent out to students, such as the email when she learned that limited extensions could now be part of her accommodations.