Terra Ryan, Regis University
This case study explores how student and instructor disability intersect with other identities impacting the classroom. Jamie, the instructor, has returned to the classroom after being away for a year for health reasons. She is wheelchair dependent and has multiple physical disabilities. Ian, a second-year math student who does not have an official accommodation letter, is taking Jamie’s course for general credit. Ian has missed four hours of the two Saturday 16-hour class for different reasons, including having to care for his disability. Despite Ian’s lack of an official accommodation letter, he is claiming Jamie should ignore classroom policy to accommodate his disability and allow him to pass the class.
Keywords: Disability, accommodation, policy
This case study explores many complexities of disabilities in the classroom from a first-person perspective, offering insight into the emotional and logistical effects of disabilities in an educational environment from an educator’s point of view. The people in this vignette are: (1)
Dr. Jamie Peterson, who is a part-time, adjunct, community college instructor. This class is her first after taking a year off for health issues related to her own visible and invisible disabilities. (2) Ian is a second-year math major. He is in the course to fulfill a general education credit. Ian comes to class late both Saturdays, leading to the conflict with Dr. Peterson. (3) Drew, a first-year student who, like Ian, is taking the course for general education credit.
The scene is a community college in the Rocky Mountain Region. This two-year institution serves 20,000 students annually and is a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). Dr. Peterson is teaching the course, “Communicating with Impossible People,” a one-credit course that meets over two Saturdays. Although she has three years of teaching experience, it is her first time teaching this class. Students spend eight hours (8:30 am-4:30 pm) in class learning what can make people “impossible” to communicate with, and conflict resolution techniques for a variety of situations. The course requires students be in the classroom for 16 course hours. However, department policy allows students to miss three hours of class across both Saturdays and still receive a passing grade.
The first Saturday morning, Dr. Peterson reviewed the syllabus with students and answered questions regarding the material and classroom expectations, including clarifying the three-hour policy. The course policy permits students to miss a maximum of three hours across both Saturdays and still pass the course if they have a C or higher. Students lose five participation points for every 30 minutes of absence. Thus, a student who receives 100% on class assignments and the paper but misses the maximum six hours will lose 30 points off their final grade, taking the grade from an A to an B.
After reviewing the syllabus, the students spend the morning learning conflict resolution aspects and techniques via lecture and video examples. A student (Ian) walked in at 9:30 am, an hour late. Jamie welcomed him and handed him a syllabus, telling him to go over it at lunch and to let her know if he has any questions. Ian thanked her and joined a group for the discussion activity. When the group breaks for lunch Ian approached Dr. Peterson saying he missed class due to his car breaking down. Dr. Peterson assured him everything is okay, and to make sure and get lunch. After Ian leaves, Dr. Peterson checks her email and sees one from a student email address with the day’s date. The message is from Ian, who informs her his car broke down and promises he will not miss the rest of the class. Dr. Peterson replies to Ian’s email, assuring him he can still pass the class with a C or above but that he will lose 10 participation points off his final grade. The class continues until 4:30 pm. At the end of the day Dr. Peterson thanks the students and says she will see them next Saturday for the final class. After everyone else leaves, Ian approaches Dr. Peterson and thanks her for the email reply. He asks if she offers any extra credit. Dr. Peterson says there is no time to offer extra credit but assures Ian he will finish the class successfully if he completes all assignments and does not miss any more class time. Dr. Peterson tells Ian she will see him next Saturday, and Ian leaves the classroom.
The Second Saturday
The second Saturday class involves some lecture but has more discussion and activities than the previous Saturday. It follows the same time format as the first class. Ian arrives to class at 11:30 a.m. three hours late and asks to speak to Dr. Peterson during the lunch break. Since students are still in the room, they meet in the hallway just outside the classroom door to the right, which they close behind them for privacy as they go into the hallway. Ian explains he overslept. Because he has diabetes, he stopped for a hamburger to help stabilize his blood sugar on his way to class. Dr. Peterson explains that Ian has missed more than three hours of the class and can no longer pass the class with a C or above. Ian angrily points out that he emailed her that morning to tell her why he would be out of class. As they are talking, Dr. Peterson notices the classroom door has been propped open and another student, Drew, appears to be watching and listening to the conversation. When Dr. Peterson asks if he needs anything, Drew shakes his head and remains where he is.
Dr. Peterson turns back to Ian, explaining that she never received a letter from Disability Services for his accommodation needs. Ian stomps off, declaring his email should be enough and that he “thought she would get it since she also has a disability.” Dr. Peterson glances over to see Drew still looking at her. Dr. Peterson asks again if Drew needs anything. He says no and moves into the classroom, where activities continue until the end of the day. At 4:30 p.m., Dr. Peterson thanks everyone. After the students leave, she checks her email and finds a message sent at 11:00 a.m. that day.
This is Ian from your Saturday class. I’m so sorry I’m not in class this morning. I overslept and I need to get some lunch to help with my blood sugar. The lines are longer than expected. I hope you’ll understand.
Dr. Peterson, who is visibly disabled herself, is anxious about being accused of ableism if Ian does not receive a passing grade even though Ian did not have an accommodation letter from the college.
The next morning Dr. Peterson receives an email from Drew:
I noticed you talking with Ian. From what I was able to see and hear, Ian seemed pretty angry about not passing the class. I think it is unfair to you and I do not want anyone taking advantage of you.
Dr. Peterson now has confirmation that Drew overheard her conversation with Ian in the hallway while Drew was standing in the doorway.
Students and faculty often hesitate to disclose disability because of stigma (Dolan, 2021). Students worry that instructors will only see their disability and not the whole person (Cook, 2021; Stones, 2017). For faculty, Wood and Happe (2023) found that some educational professionals with autism were unsupported by school officials once they disclosed their diagnosis.
Research on faculty disability in higher education showcases a reluctance to disclose disability status due to initial and ongoing stigmatization. Burke (2021) cautions that while some students may feel they have a role model when working with an instructor who has a physical disability, during the hiring process and after employment is accepted, possible stigmas remain. Dolan (2021) finds higher education instructors with invisible disabilities, which are disabilities that are not readily visible, are hesitant to disclose their disabilities for fear of being stigmatized. Dr. Peterson’s visible and invisible disabilities may add to the case study’s complexity. Because Dr. Peterson has multiple visible and invisible disabilities and health complications, including Cerebral Palsy, which results in wheelchair use, partial blindness and deafness, and high blood pressure, she must disclose her visible and invisible disabilities and their physical effects in the classroom (Mathews & Benson, 2020).
Dr. Peterson requires assistance with some physical tasks in the classroom, including writing on the board, moving objects around the classroom, and propping open the classroom door. Dr. Peterson also asks students to move backpacks and bags out of the isle to free her driving path. Dr. Peterson discloses that she is not able to see or hear the left side of the room and asks students to the right to let her know if anyone to the left is trying to get her attention. Dr. Peterson was hired to teach the Communication Department’s Saturday courses to ease back into the teaching profession after being away for a year.
A one credit course differs from a full semester course because they cover the subject over two days as opposed to the standard 16 weeks. The shortness of the course affects how student needs can be met. For example, student grades are due three days after the course ends, making it impossible to take late work or grant extra time for assignments. Additionally, the course covers material through lectures, discussions, group work, reflective papers, and skits that require presence and participation to pass the course.
The case study reflects the intersectionality of disability accommodation needs and confidentiality issues. The case study explores whether instructors, who are not supposed to grant accommodations without an official accommodation letter from the school’s disability service office, should offer accommodations regardless. Instructors are legally obligated to meet student needs that have been stated in an official accommodation letter, but they are under no obligation to do so without the letter. In fact, they are discouraged from doing so. However, instructors often teach multiple classes, sometimes with large numbers of students, and may have trouble keeping track of all student needs (Grant, 2023). Instructors also need to keep disability-related information confidential. The case study allows students to dive into possible student and teacher outcomes if that confidentiality is jeopardized (University of California San Francisco, 2022). 
- What protections does the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 offer for both Dr. Peterson and Ian?
- What accommodations could Dr. Peterson have made for Ian without an accommodation letter?
- Do Dr. Peterson’s disabilities factor into the case narrative? Why or why not?
- What protections does the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment of 2008 offer both Dr. Peterson and Ian?
- Should Dr. Peterson take the dilemma to the department chair? Why or why not?
- How should Dr. Peterson respond to Drew’s email and Ian’s second email?
- What confidentiality issues does Drew email raise?
- What role does organizational culture play in the case study?
- Should Ian oversleeping factor into Dr. Peterson’s decision to enforce the three-hour policy or not? Why or why not?
- What steps could Dr. Peterson taken when she noticed Drew listening and watching the conversation with Ian inside the classroom door?
Burke, L. (2021, May 11). A Difficult Pathway: Faculty members with disabilities say stigma prevents some from being open about their conditions, and the path to the academy still has its barriers. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/05/12/faculty-disabilities-say-academe-can-present-barriers
Cook, T. (2021). ‘It’s a gift...and a curse’: How COVID reframed our understanding of disability as an intersectional identity. Sociation, 21(1), 89-98.
Dolan, V. (2021). ’...but if you tell tnyone, I’ll deny we ever met:’ The experiences of academics with invisible disabilities in the neoliberal university.International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09 518398.2021.1885075.
Grant, B. (2023, March 1). How to access college disability services and accommodations. Best Colleges. https://www.bestcolleges.com/blog/how-to-access-college-disability-services/
Mathews, K. & Benson, T.(2020). Recognizing faculty with Ddsabilities: data and considerations from the faculty job satisfaction survey. [Infographic]. Harvard Graduate School of Education. https://coache.gse.harvard.edu/blog/recognizing-faculty-disabilities-data-and-considerations-faculty-job-satisfaction
Stones, E. (2017). Exploring the intersection of ableism, image-building and hegemonic masculinity in the Political Communication classroom. In M.S. Jeffress (Ed.), Pedagogy, disability, and communication: Applying disability studies in the classroom (pp.184-202). Routledge.
Wood, R.& Happé, F. (2023). What are the views and experiences of autistic teachers? Findings from an online survey in the UK. Disability & Society, 38(1), 47-72. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2021.1916888
University of California San Francisco (2022, October 30). Confidentiality: Maintaining Confidentiality of Student Disability Information.Student Disability Resources .https://sds.ucsf.edu/confidentiality#:~:text=In%20addition%20to%20fulfilling%20legal,safe%2C%20supported%2C%20and%20protected.
 Special thanks to Omar Swartz for his feedback on this paper and for his mentoring over the past five years.
About the Author
Terra Ryan, Ed.D. hold a degrees in Communication, Sociology, and Organizational Leadership. Her research interests include employees with disabilities in organizational settings. Terra teaches a variety of courses including: Public Speaking, Organizational Communication, and Interpersonal/Intercultural Communication. In her free time she enjoys judging high school and college speech and debate. Her favorites are Cross Examination Debate (CX), Lincoln Douglas Debate (LD), and Public Forum Debate. Lastly, Terra has presented papers at research conferences throughout Colorado and is a member of the National Communication Association.