Non-Traditional Students: “Serving The Underserved”

Accommodating students with disabilities in an inner-city institution of higher learning has a unique set of problems and opportunities.  MNSCU […]

Accommodating students with disabilities in an inner-city institution of higher learning has a unique set of problems and opportunities.  MNSCU institutions in the Metro inner-city area have mission statements that speak to “serving the underserved” and meeting the needs of non-traditional students in the urban setting.  Are students who have traditionally been outside the loop of higher education more challenging to serve than other students?  

The rules are the same.  The students are not.  Institutions of higher education are required to provide appropriate, effective accommodations to students with documented disabilities.  Inner city colleges and universities follow the same guidelines for providing those accommodations as colleges in more affluent areas.  Disability Service providers meet with students, review their documentation of disability, discuss appropriate accommodations, and implement those accommodations.  Typical accommodations are notetaking services, someone else in the class providing notes for the student with the disability; testing accommodations such as extra time for tests or the opportunity to take tests in a private, distraction free room; and books on tape for students who have vision problems or other disabilities. Typical Disability Service Offices in colleges and universities serve a larger percentage of students with learning disabilities and psychiatric disabilities than students with vision, hearing, or mobility impairments.  These are in institutions of learning.  Therefore, learning disabilities are more of an issue for students, and require more intervention, than other kinds of disabilities.

The process is smooth when students have clear documentation of their disabilities and have a history of receiving accommodations in their elementary and secondary education.  Students from the inner city, however, often don’t have access to the healthcare necessary for obtaining appropriate documentation of a disability.  Non-traditional students may have attended elementary or secondary education at a time or in a school that didn’t address disabilities at all, and so have little awareness of what accommodations are available or appropriate.  The process isn’t as smooth for those students who have been traditionally underserved by many social systems including the public school system.  They come to college less prepared to access the system for accommodating disabilities.

The rules say colleges and universities only have to provide accommodations to students who have the appropriate documentation.  Even with guidance from disability service providers to resources in the community for obtaining documentation, some students, with obvious learning or other type disabilities, are still unable to obtain documentation.  These are the “underserved”, the very students named in the mission statements of these inner city schools. 

Where do service providers on these campuses draw the line?  Do they strictly follow the book so that only students with documentation of a disability receive accommodations?  Do they bend the rules and say that students without documentation, but with strong indicators of having a disability may receive services?  Each institution, under the guidance of the administration, determines where to draw the line.

There are legal, financial, and ethical factors to consider.  The word “accommodation”, when used in responding to the needs of people with disabilities, is a legal term.  Some institutions may choose to provide accommodations to only those students with documented disabilities, but “services” to other students who meet their criteria for having an undocumented or undiagnosed disability.  “Accommodations” are provided to students who have a legal right to them.   “Services” are provided to students on an as-available basis, but with no legal imperative.

The availability of services (remember, not accommodations) to students without documentation of a disability is often determined by the financial resources of the institution.  Given the recent budget cuts to higher education in Minnesota’s state colleges and universities, the availability of services for students relying on the generosity of these institutions, and not on a legal imperative, may seem to be limited at best.  The good news is that the typical services that can help students with undiagnosed or undocumented disabilities are not costly.  It doesn’t cost anything for a college to give a certificate of appreciation to one student in a classroom who is willing to share notes with another student.  It doesn’t cost anything to provide a private testing room for a student.  It may not even cost anything to provide a book on tape for a student if the college or university has a good system for soliciting and utilizing student workers and volunteers who can read texts onto tape.

These services shouldn’t be offered to just anyone.  There should be a system of criteria that students meet which indicates a significant likelihood that a disability is present.  Students who don’t have learning disabilities will not benefit much from a private testing room, whereas students who do will show a significant improvement in test scores when given the opportunity to test privately.  Students who don’t benefit from books on tape really don’t want to use them.  It takes a lot more time to read a book on tape than to read it silently to oneself.  A student with an undiagnosed or undocumented disability doesn’t mind the extra time and effort required in accessing these services if the outcome is better comprehension and better grades.

There are things colleges and universities can do to better serve all students at risk; things they can learn from the experiences of disability service providers.  If instructors provide lecture notes to all students, no one needs a note-taker.  If instructors choose text books that are published both in text and audio form, no one needs a book read to tape.  If instructors design take-home tests rather than in-class tests, no one needs a private testing space.  These are all examples of Universal Design in Instruction, which is another article altogether, but speaks to the benefits of accommodation-like services for people who do not qualify for accommodations in the legal sense of the word.

Ethically, the administration of each college or university must determine where to draw the line in providing services to students with or without documentation of disability.  It’s important that the administrations of colleges with large numbers of students who traditionally have had less access to healthcare and quality education systems take seriously the ethical question.  They must consider the mission of their institution, the needs of their unique student body, the resources of their institution and the surrounding community, and the degree to which their faculty and the infrastructure of the institution can incorporate principles of universal design and services to students at risk.  Drawing the line in such a way that benefits students who have traditionally been underserved is a challenge, but it’s worth it.