What is reasonable accommodation? Let’s begin with the definition given by United Nations in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:
“Reasonable accommodation means necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” In the United States, including Puerto Rico, federal law requires that reasonable accommodations be made for employment, education, housing, courts, and public services. Refusal to make an accommodation is equal to discrimination.
How would I define it in my own words? I would say that reasonable accommodation are some adaptations that are made in order to make possible that the person can function successfully in a concrete environment according to a certain set of rules. What I mean with “function successfully”? I mean that the person can accomplish what is expected to everyone in the same position. What I mean with “concrete environment”? I mean that reasonable accommodations are applied to specific environments. For example: if you can’t swim without assistance, you won’t have that need mentioned in your college reasonable accommodation letter, except if you’re enrolled in swimming classes. What do I mean with “according to a certain set of rules?” I mean that reasonable accommodations are made in relation to some specific standards that are meant to be applied to everyone, not only to the persons with diverse functionality. For example: when a student enrolls in a class his learning must be graded by the class’ professor, that is a rule that is expected to be applied to all University students, no matter if they are functionally diverse or not.
How reasonable accommodation works? It varies. In school, it works as part of an IEP (Individualized Education Program; in Spanish: PEI). I never had one of these. I knew how to blend myself in order to get along. Learning like anyone else was a struggle for me through all my school years. My teachers made some “reasonable accommodations” by their own because I was a “brilliant and creative student” that evidently do not fitted the ordinary circumstances. For example: I was allowed many times to spend more time in the library or in creative projects, instead of being bored in the classroom. The problem was that because there was no IEP, this depended solely in the good will of every teacher. Some teachers allowed me to learn my own way, some didn’t. Some teachers even considered that the adaptations that were made for me where “privileges” that I shouldn’t have. For those teacher, I should learn to be like all other students. When the teachers didn’t make any adaptation, my frustration was a huge problem, I visited the social worker (she was like my counselor) a lot because of that.
Why I never got an IEP through all my school years? Because I learned to compensate my diverse functionality with my giftedness since very young and the schools where I studied both were diverse enough to integrate my twice-exceptional learning style without needing an IEP. For example: I remember myself in kindergarten observing what my classmates made in order to I do the same. I didn’t process the oral instructions, but I did the correct work because I observed what the others were doing. No one taught me this coping system for not understanding the instructions, I realized it by own because I wanted to be able what I was supposed to be doing without any help (I had a strong independent tendency). This was one of the most common coping systems I ever used during my school years. I created many copying systems like that one, that no one taught me, just to do things like my classmates. Another factor to never getting an IEP was that although I clearly did not fit within the normal expectations of all students, I was simply considered a “brilliant student”, so some of the factors that would have been identified in other students as symptoms of ADD or may be Auditive Processing Disorder in me were considered simply a natural part of being “brilliant”. For example: I got bored a lot of times and began to draw and daydream in the classroom, but instead of considering that a problem, I was given time and space to do it in my own terms because I usually ended classwork faster than my classmates once I got the instructions right, so I could have time to spare watching the sky, coloring or creating something. So, I grew up as a “different student”, never as a “disabled student,” and I am grateful of growing up without “disability” labels. My greatest academic problems where maths and sciences, but I achieved A’s and B’s even in those classes. I only got two C’s in my whole school years, both in High School, one in trigonometry and one in chemistry. I repeated trigonometry in summer and got and A. It all depended in how the classes were assessed.
The problem with grades began in college, when I couldn’t compensate any longer and I began having more C’s and D’s, and to fail classes. The first year in the Faculty of General Studies was a dream and easy as eating cake because I love to read (you need to read a lot in first year) and the assessment was mainly essays made at home or tests where made in laboratories. The problem began from the second year and beyond, when I began to fail classes despite all my efforts to pass them, or would have a lower grade than expected for my huge efforts. The circumstances of each failure or underachievement were varied. Among the possible reasons of underachievement or failing were:
-The class was assessed solely by test that depended mainly in memorization of information. I was unable to memorize big chunks information.
-The class were given solely via sequential conference, without any visualization of the information. That meant that I was responsible to visualize all the information by my own, and that can take a lot of time.
-The class assessment depended solely on auditive memory or grammar-translation method, so it was impossible for me to learn something because I do not learn with any of those ways. This happened a lot with learning third languages.
-The class had a specific schedule for delivering exercises and works and I forgot to give them due completely forgetting the delivery date. This happened specially with writing courses: the professors considered me a gifted writer, but I was unable to remember when to give them my works, so I had a bad grade or failed the class simply because not delivering the class works on time of forgetting to deliver them.
-The class had a specific time sequence, like Public Speaking class, and I had no coping mechanism to compensate my lack of time awareness. I am very good at spatial awareness, but I am a mess with calculating time.
-Sometimes I confused the numbers of the test schedules, so I would go the test in the wrong time or to the wrong classroom. For example: if the test was a “8:10, I would read “18:00”, or if the classroom said “12”, I would read “21”.
-I failed some classes simply because was unable to write the test by hand, my handwriting was illegible. I am, in general, very good at writing essay tests, but I am very bad in writing by hand, it was even painful to me. No matter how much I studied about the material, the handwriting was illegible so I could express my knowledge.
-Sometimes I did not hand my works on time due perfectionism: the work was never good enough for me.
A doctor made my first reasonable accommodation letter in 2009, for attention problems. However, it was worthless: the University where I studied at that moment, the University of Navarra, refused to accept the reasonable accommodation letter made by my doctor in Puerto Rico for them because in Spain “those letters were not used” and “the University did not have services for special education students” (sadly, I am quoting literally what I was told in the ecclesiastical faculty of theology). I do not wish to anyone the dreadful experience of finally achieving your academic dream, being accepted in an institution for studying theology and philosophy, and then failing some of your ecclesiastical faculty classes, the “easiest classes of the whole University”, miserably just because you did not had reasonable accommodations available. Eventually I developed test anxiety and psychological trauma (the trauma was not only due forced class failing, but it was part of it), that I overcame with proper treatment and support from the University of Puerto Rico. My shook was double because, as far as I knew, if a university had access to federal funds they must honor reasonable accommodations. I studied in Spain thanks to federal student loans, so if the University of Navarra students had the privilege of being able to request US federal students loans if they were US citizens, like I am, I always assumed without asking prior enrolling the University that they must honor reasonable accommodations according to ADA law. I was wrong, and I discovered it the hard way: when I brought the reasonable accommodation letter they had no idea of what reasonable accommodation was, nor had any interest in learning how to make similar adaptations that could be applied to the Spanish educational culture and would have allowed me to pass the classes I failed. “You need to learn how to be a normal student” was the kindest comment I heard about reasonable accommodations there. I don’t think they did this on purpose, the main issue was the discrepancy between Spanish higher education system and US higher education system. Spanish higher education system is not as inclusive as higher education system in United States. In Spain university assessments mostly depend solely on tests, and they are designed by default to be tests that not every learning style can pass. For example: in Spain, if you are in college and you don’t have the short memory, the attention or the handwriting to write and pass the test, you won’t be usually offered any other kind of assessment because that is not their way of doing things at University. If you are not able to do those things, you simply should not study a career in the University but in something they call “Professional Formation” (in Spanish: “Formación Profesional”, or “FP”).
I tried to get a reasonable accommodation letter for studying in the next university after University of Navarra, but I was unable to demonstrate my failed classes at the Ecclesiastical Faculty of the University of Navarra due a technicality: the Ecclesiastical Faculty of the University of Navarra did not wrote my real grades on the transcripts. Instead of writing the failings I got in some tests, they simply wrote “No presentado”, what means that I simply did not presented to the tests. I discovered this too late to claim it, after I returned to Puerto Rico (I was so frustrated and impotent with the whole situation that I was living that when I left the University of Navarra I only requested one transcript of the ecclesiastical faculty and I only opened it when it was strictly necessary: for discussing it with the new faculty I enrolled; I never requested a transcript of the graduate classes in Philosophy, which I did passed with huge efforts). They probably did this believing that they made me a favor by avoiding to write a low grade in my academic transcript, I knew many students requested the professors to write them a “no presentado” if they did not pass the test. For me it was not a favor: because I was unable to demonstrate that I was failing classes, I couldn’t get the assistance I needed in the next university. Of course, I failed classes again. I also took a psychometric test just to demonstrate that the failings were not caused by lack of intellectual capacity (the result of the IQ test was 140 but I was unable to pass the simplest Hebrew test). Only then, after I failed again and I lost my academic progress again, I began to receive help.
When I arrived to the University of Puerto Rico to study in the Faculty of Education I was better prepared in term of psychological resources, although I still needed to deal with the psychological trauma caused by forced failing and forced testing. I talked clearly about my lack of reasonable accommodation experiences in the office for disabled students of the University of Puerto Rico in my first interview with them, after being admitted to the Faculty of Education to study to be a ESL certified teacher. They assured me that that would not happen again with them: in the University of Puerto Rico I would be able to access to help before I began failing and the reasonable accommodations requested by the doctor would be honored if possible. For example: it was not possible to make a reasonable accommodation for not taking tests at all, but it was possible to make a reasonable accommodation that states that the professor must take into consideration that the student have problems with memorization. That way my assessments could not depend solely on memory-based tests.
To give you an idea of what reasonable accommodation is, here you can see (in Spanish) my reasonable accommodation letter of the University of Puerto Rico:
The signatures are the signatures of my professors and my mentor teacher. Each one of them have a copy of this letter and have agreed to follow its guidelines. With this letter I got a B in an elective and “easy” Humanities class whose assessment depended 75% on memory-based multiple choice tests. Besides that class, all other classes’ assessment depended 50% or less in memory-based tests, and I passed them all with A. My usual problems are needing to clarify instructions, needing extra time to finish some works, needed to be reminded of deadlines and sometimes needed to deliver a work incomplete because I was so perfectionist that the professor thought it would be better for me to simply deliver the work as it was, correcting it and allow me to make the corrections and then grade me. My perfectionism ended with the professor’s corrections.
A little comment about this letter: the underlined sections refers to the use of Smart Board or projector instead of a whiteboard or a chalkboard. I think it says so a little bit dramatically, I wouldn’t use those words and my doctor did not use those words neither, those were the University’s words. They chose to write it that way because, due my problems with handwriting, being forced to write by hand had caused anxiety in some classes and they did not want me to have anxiety in my teaching practicum. Due that reasonable accommodation the Faculty of Education assigned me a school with a Smart Board available to make my teaching practicum. Although now I do write by hand sometimes and it does not cause me anxiety, I still rely mostly on technology to give my classes and function as teacher. I am a strongly visual, applicative and meaningful teacher: I always have something to visualize the auditive information, I always seek to apply the information and I always try to help students to give their own meaning to the process of learning that information.
So, the difference between having reasonable accommodation and not having reasonable accommodations can be seen clearly in my transcript of the University of Puerto Rico. Prior 2008 I did not have reasonable accommodation. After 2016 I had reasonable accommodation. You can see the transcript here:
As you can see, my academic progress is way more stable with reasonable accommodation. Beyond the grades, having reasonable accommodation allows you to give your best without being penalized for being how you are. With it there is no anxiety, no trauma, no stigma. I feel functional with it. I feel integrated and part of where I am studying. I can invest my energies in being the best I can be, instead of investing them in being able to do the things like anyone else does. It is also true that reasonable accommodation by itself is not enough for achieving academic progress, not even using Adderall is enough for that. Learning organizational skills as copying system for attention problems and getting psychological support for dealing with the emotional sensitivity and the perfectionism related with being gifted was also necessary for getting a satisfactory academic progress. My problem with organizational skills was that I was insisting in doing what works for others, numeric-sequential based organization, when what works best for me is visual-spatial based organization. My ESL mentor professor taught me a lot about visual-spatial organizational skills, and that was also important to keeping my best academic progress possible. Learning how to organize and keeping track of time with an Ipad also helped a lot with that, and also helped me to get an app to compensate the lack of time tracking skills needed to pass the Public Speaking class. I repeated that class again and got an A.
I made an interesting question in some of my education classes that I should mention here: should I as teacher wait to an IEP to make a reasonable accommodation? The answer always was a no. Waiting an IEP to make a reasonable accommodation when you see clearly that it is needed can harm the kid academically and specially psychologically. It can cause anxiety. It can interrupt or alter the child’s development. It can disconnect the student from learning. Besides all that, not granting a needed reasonable accommodation dehumanizes you as teacher. The need must be informed to the proper authorities (special education teacher and parents) but action should begin as soon as the need is identified. It is also important to never identify a student that needs a reasonable accommodation as a “disabled student” because that is not true: we all can learn and we all have different capacities. Technically speaking, we are all disabled, we all have things that we can’t do, like speaking Chinese. We generally identify people according to what they can do (He is a doctor, she swims, they are artists…), not according what they can’t do, and that principle should be applied to “disabled” persons too: we must define them according to what they can do. We must learn to embrace everyone’s capacities, so we should identify the students that need reasonable accommodation as “functionally diverse students”, not as “disabled students.” I agree with that. For example: a blind student is not a student that can’t see. A blind student is a student that learns auditively, orally or through touch only.
A last curious detail about reasonable accommodation. Curiously, I do not feel “disabled” with a reasonable accommodation letter, although that letter is given by the “Office for Affairs of Disabled Persons” (In Spanish: OAPI, Oficina de Asuntos para las Personas con Impedimentos) of the University of Puerto Rico. With the reasonable accommodation letter I feel, as I said, funcional, integrated and able to be a part of the place I study as how I am. When I felt really “disabled” was prior the reasonable accommodation letter, specially in the University of Navarra. When you can’t avoid failing classes just because you learn different and need to do things differently you really feel like a “disabled” person. I still remember one of the first things I was told in the process of enrollment in the Faculty of Education of the University of Puerto Rico, when they knew I was being interviewed by OAPI for getting a reasonable accommodation letter: “you are not disabled, you are different. Learning in a different way is not being disabled, is doing things in a diverse way”. The fact is that I had never been “disabled” with the reasonable accommodation letter.
I hope that I can help some students with reasonable accommodations to reach their best because I really know the difference that having reasonable accommodation can make. I truly believe that we are all capable of learning how to give our best with the capacities we are given, and I hope to inspire that to my students, specially to those who are functionally diverse.
Let’s keep growing!