February 24th, 2016

Wheelchair Ramps and Extra Time for Learning


student struggles to finish exam.

“A wheelchair ramp is an alternate mode of access for the physically disabled so that they may access the same benefits as others. Similarly, being allowed extra time gives the learning-disabled extra time to process what they know. My reading speed will always be slow. But having extra time gives me the chance to compete with others. Extra time is like being provided with a wheelchair ramp. I simply ask for equal access to the experience of learning that others already have.” — William Wegenast

Special accommodations for those with learning disabilities aren’t something faculty question much in public, but just below the surface the waters are troubled.

Teaching Professor Blog Faculty are bright, curious individuals and nowhere is that mental ability more apparent than when we’re dealing with our content— known well and loved much. The correct answer, the right question, the logical leaps between thoughts, the necessary resources, they are all right there on our mental fingertips.

For some of our students, learning is easy; they get it, often without a great deal of effort. Quite naturally, we are attracted to those students who, like us, are fast learners and get it right on the first try. We don’t connect as easily or readily with slow, struggling learners.

I have written previously about my brother, whose mind is slower than most. Ask him a question and you can almost hear the wheels slowly turning as he makes his way to an answer. Tell a joke, he doesn’t laugh, there is awkward silence as he mulls it over and finally announces, “I don’t get it” or lets loose with a hearty laugh well after “normal” folk would be done laughing. There’s been lots for him (and us) to learn since he’s come to live with us on the farm. He’s learned to build a fire. It’s his job now to keep the wood stove in the shop up and running during the cold months. Teaching him was a long, tortuous process ending in success only because my husband is patient and persistent. But like so many skills, once mastered, how long the learning took no longer matters.

Beyond students who don’t look like very promising learners, faculty are bothered by how some students respond to learning disabilities. A few, including some with documented disabilities, don’t appear all that compromised. It looks more like somebody trying to get out of what they’re not particularly motivated to do. Some with learning disabilities don’t work to overcome their limitations but use them as an excuse. And some who are clearly struggling to learn don’t want to admit (to themselves or others) that a learning disability might be what’s making it so hard.

Students aren’t always truthful, and the instruments that identify learning disabilities aren’t always accurate. Learning is such a complicated process, and learners tackle it in a myriad of different ways. For faculty trying to ascertain and respond to the learning needs of all their students, it requires wisdom. It would be helpful if Solomon stopped by and shared insights. Accommodations can take time and require extra work, a commitment most faculty are happy to make if what’s being asked for is truly needed to support efforts to learn. But faculty are busy, and giving every student the benefit of the doubt comes with its own set of risks.

At this point it’s good to revisit the bottom lines: 1) none of us signed up for the brain we got; we spend our lifetimes working with what we’ve been given; 2) brains that don’t work the same way or at the same speed as ours should be thought of as different rather than inferior; 3) at virtually all colleges and universities resources are available to support students and faculty as they deal with learning disabilities; and, finally, 4) learning is the main, most important, dare I say, only business of teaching. If an occasional student takes advantage of us, that is far less a travesty than teaching that divests a student of the opportunity to learn. If a student needs a wheelchair ramp to access learning, then let us build it. If ascending to understanding is slow and arduous, then let us be there to offer a push.

Note: The opening quote is included in a short piece written by Joy Mighty that appears in a Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education publication called Silences.

Add Comment

  • Rosemary Hamlin

    Finally someone who understands teaching is not about money but caring about the students and actually teaching the TIME to teach the students. Great article, thanks Dr. Weimer.

  • Akilah

    YES. Thank you so much for posting this.

  • Nima Salehi

    Beautiful article. Thank you.

  • Linda

    Thank you…well said!

  • Christine

    Thanks for such a great analogy – a wheelchair ramp to learning! I design courses to train faculty to use Universal Design for Learning principles, and one of the things I focus on is attitudes to disabilities. I will definitely refer to your article!