Yale is an incredibly old and prestigious institution. But do we ever stop to wonder what constitutes that idea of prestige? Academia is often touted as a means to a better future, the torch of knowledge passed down from previous generations, cultivating the innovations of tomorrow. However, the means by which we teach new generations of students hasn’t changed. Why is it that in academia, preserving prestige and rigor means sticking to the status quo? All too many people believe that progressive and inclusive education means a degradation of standards.
I suspect that this has to do with a very narrow view of learning that many of us have. This view continues to underserve many students, in particular those of us with disabilities, including learning disabilities like ADHD and dyslexia, but also everything from vision and hearing impairments, chronic illnesses, immune deficiencies and mobility issues. I have found that the Yale community’s attitude toward education makes it unnecessarily difficult for students with disabilities to get the education we deserve.
One of the most glaring examples of this at Yale is the resistance towards technology use in the classroom, especially in seminars. In my experience, professors often declare that no technology is to be used, in favor of good old pen and paper — unless, of course, you have an accommodation. This presents many issues, the least of which is getting the professor to grant the accommodation without annoying them. Imagine you are the only one in an intimate classroom setting typing away while your classmates scribble in notebooks.
In the case of more invisible disabilities, you are forced to “out” yourself as a person with “special needs.” I require technology for many reasons. One is that I have osteoporosis and use crutches. Using a computer instead of books and notes makes the load I need to schlep across campus a lot lighter, thus protecting me from various health complications like potential fractures. I’m often the only person in the classroom with a laptop, which often prompts confused looks and intrusive questioning, leaving me more self-conscious and almost too embarrassed to engage with whatever topic the professor is trying to stuff into my brain.
Not only are technology bans a major barrier to people with disabilities, but class attendance and the stigma surrounding extra time on exams is also an issue. From doctor’s appointments to health emergencies to the literal physical ability to get to class, there is no shortage of legitimate reasons why I might not be in class on a given day. However, Yale policy does not currently require that lectures are recorded to be given to students who need them. University administrators have told me they fear that professors may lose claim over intellectual property and that posting recorded lectures will lead to diminishing class attendance. This would be more of a legitimate fear if not for the fact that other high-ranking universities such as MIT and UChicago routinely record lectures and give access to students who need them.
A friend of mine has a severe immunodeficiency that often lands her in the hospital. When she comes down with symptoms like a 101-degree fever, she goes to class and takes exams. This type of behavior is considered reckless by our doctors but becomes necessary to function in an academic environment that confuses requesting reasonable accommodations with weakness. In my experience, people with disabilities are the least likely among all students to miss class on a whim. Absences have to be saved for when things inevitably go wrong by no fault of our own.
This equating of rigor and hard deadlines with academic success leads to negative stigma not just towards attendance but also accommodations like extra time. I live in constant fear of being accused of being “lazy” or considered less competent by peers and teachers for getting an extra half hour on my exams. But my peers with disabilities at Yale are some of the hardest working and most resilient people that I know. Our academic accommodations do not make classes “easier,” they simply level the playing field.
This is not to say that all professors and administrators are against technology and inclusive curriculum development. I have had many understanding professors here at Yale, and I am beyond grateful for their humanity and compassion. However, faculty members are often unprepared to deal with the variety of issues that students present, despite their good intentions. Michelle Morgan, Yale’s digital accessibility specialist, helped plan a panel of students with disabilities hosted by the Center for Teaching and Learning to help educate faculty on ways to make their courses more accessible. However, these types of events are optional, and the faculty members that come are often those who already know and care very much about this subject. These efforts “preach to the choir” more than they facilitate change.
I wish the solution was simply to “end the stigma,” but wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we just created an academic environment with diverse learning in mind? Being able to integrate technology and alternative teaching methods into the way we work and learn is where the world is headed. Yes, there is a fear of slacking attendance. But the reality is, if a person does not want or care to pay attention, they aren’t going to regardless of whether they have a laptop in front of them or not. Moreover, at a place like Yale, students should be granted admission for their academic prowess and willingness to learn. So, giving us the benefit of the doubt is reasonable. We shouldn’t need to justify our needs to anyone.
MAFALDA VON ALVENSLEBEN is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .