Extra time on a midterm. Wheelchair access to a certain class. Food in a lecture hall.
When Yale students need accommodations to succeed, the University is often more than generous in providing help. Largely guided by the Americans with Disabilities Act — a landmark civil rights law enacted in 1990 — Yale’s Student Accessibility Services have helped students from across the University take tests, eat in dining halls and reach campus landmarks on a level playing field with others on campus.
But according to an email sent to students with accommodations that was obtained by the News, the number of Yale students requesting accommodations has nearly tripled in the past three years. The message, which was sent last week by SAS leadership, also detailed a range of changes meant to improve students’ test-taking experiences — including a push for faculty to proctor accommodated exams.
It remains unclear why this rise has taken place. But SAS Director Sarah Chang has guesses: For one, she said, stigma surrounding disabilities has decreased. Other factors could include increased awareness of on-campus disability services and a general rise in students with health challenges. Yale’s recently increased student population — concurrent with the opening of Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray Colleges —may have contributed, too.
And while she declined to provide more detailed statistics, Chang also said that universities across the country have reported a similar growth.
“There’s not an easy answer as to what exactly is behind this trend,” she wrote in an email to the News. “While some disabilities are visible, the majority of disabilities we see at Yale are invisible.”
For French lecturer Ruth Koizim, a member of this year’s Provost Advisory Committee on Accessibility Resources, one thing is certain — students by and large are not gaming the system. Accommodation requests require documentation — lots of it — and tests can be tedious, she said.
“I’m sure there are abuses, I don’t think there are a lot of them,” she explained. “Some students may find the process burdensome, but the degree to which the process is burdensome is part of what makes it less likely to be subject to abuse.”
Chang’s email also introduced changes to exam proctoring for students with disabilities. Since SAS generally administers makeup exams during Friday business hours and other SAS-led exams occur at the same time the exam is held in the classroom, contacting a professor or teaching fellows for questions and corrections can be difficult. Chang told the News that changes to an exam do not always get passed on to students with accommodations, which can further disadvantage these test-takers.
Now, the University has encouraged more faculty members to proctor accommodated exams, quizzes and make-ups, according to the email,.
“If a faculty is able to provide accommodations, this problem is solved and the student benefits from having immediate, direct access to the faculty,” Chang wrote.
This push has come in large part in response to the rising number of students requesting accommodations. But Koizim said the change could prove useful for all Yale students — not just those with disabilities.
“To have the actual professor in the room when you’re taking an exam … how can that not be to everyone’s advantage?” she said. When there is a somewhat ambiguous question or an error in the exam design, and the professor is absent, “Who are you going to ask, Ghostbusters?”
Still, campus accessibility remains an issue. At the Graduate and Professional Student Senate’s meeting this January, Phil Antinone DIV ’22 alleged that the Senate chamber — located on the third floor of 204 York St. — proved unreachable for those with wheelchairs. And in an opinion piece written the News last December, Brendan Campbell ’21 complained of ableism among Yale students, administrators and faculty members.
He alleged that University community members sometimes fail to recognize the difficulties that some students with disabilities face.
Student groups on campus have worked to raise awareness for accommodations services and to help lower the stigma some may feel when asking for them. Disability Empowerment for Yale, which started in 2016, helped curate an exhibit at the Cushing Medical Library in celebration of the ADA’s 30th anniversary this Thursday.
DEFY’s president, Paige Lawrence ’21, told the News that these changes could be due in part to the SAS’s resources: In an email, she said Yale’s SAS is understaffed compared to peer institutions. The push for more faculty proctoring, she explained, was a “win-win” — not only does it ease the SAS’s workload, but it also can improve students’ test-taking experiences.
“I appreciate any efforts they take to reduce their burden in order to serve our community more effectively,” she wrote. “If that means delegating certain tasks to faculty, as long as the faculty are properly trained and monitored to ensure accommodations are handled properly, then I’m all for these changes. This way, student accessibility services can focus on other forms of accommodations and making sure they are successfully implemented.”
The ADA was first signed into law by President George H. W. Bush.
Matt Kristoffersen | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, March 7: A previous version of this article said that SAS-led exams are held generally during Friday business hours only. In fact, SAS-led exams are held at the same time that the exam is held in the classroom, when professors are usually proctoring the exam for other students. SAS generally administers makeup exams on Fridays during business hours.